Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the National Conversation

01/14/2011 02:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Dori J. Maynard President, Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education

We are a nation deeply divided, at times unable to agree about anything from the role of government, to the rights of citizens to even whether our president is a US citizen.

But for one brief moment on Saturday, it seemed as if we came together to condemn the violence that took six lives and severely wounded 14 others, including the target, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

And then the toxic talk returned. This time, the rancorous discussion focused on the role, if any, the angry tenor of our national debate played in this tragedy.

To be clear, I have long been concerned about the damaging effects of -- what I perceive to be -- an out-of-control conversation is having on this country. As someone who grew up in urban areas where guns are not often used for hunting or target practice, I could not fathom how putting targets over congressional districts or urging people to reload rather than retreat, furthered our political dialogue.

While we may never know if Jared Lee Loughner was influenced by what some have dubbed the language of hate, we do know the national conversation has become so corrosive that it is as if it became a suspected accomplice within hours of the shootings.

Yet, even as we talked about the effects uncivil discourse plays in our country, in most cases we had no more of a discussion than what passed for political conversation prior to Saturday.

Even more depressing, except in a few instances, very few people seem to be talking about where we go from here. How do we talk to each other? How do we conduct our national debate? What, if anything, is considered outside the bounds of constructive conversation?

One rare exception was a brief exchange on The Today Show when Ann Curry broke into the co-host chat near the end of the show's second hour on Monday to remind us all that each of us has a responsibility to nurture a constructive dialogue.

"You know the only thing that stops loss of civility is us... It's our own sense of outrage over what is acceptable and not acceptable," she said.

Matt Lauer chimed in, noting that journalists also need to look in the mirror when he said: "And when you say 'us' there are no saints in the media either. Often times, not only do we parrot these things that are said, we incite them and we like to spur on these types of ferocious debates between people, and maybe that has to stop as well."

Both are right.

As citizens it is each of our responsibilities to ratchet down the rhetoric in our own conversations, not so we self-censor but so that we enable ourselves to be heard and to hear.

Obviously, we all have the First Amendment right to use whatever word we choose. However, as Laura Schlessinger discovered, your choice of words can often overshadow your point. After listening to her N-word-riddled rant several times, I have to admit I still heard the N-word more than I heard any point she may have been trying to make. In other words, do you want your word to be your point or do you want your word to bolster your point? This is all the more important because in this time of polarization we are often talking across the fault lines of race, class, gender, generation and geography where words and phrases have different meanings and nuances depending on our perspective.

As journalists, I hope we will take the words of Matt Lauer to heart. We have a responsibility to help moderate this national dialogue. Perhaps it's time for us to agree that two talking heads screaming over each other cannot really be considered a dialogue. Lauer is right. Anchors need to help their guests have genuine conversations with each other.

In an era of 24/7 news we have the time to dig into the issues. What we haven't had is the inclination.

This horrific tragedy gives us the opportunity to hit the reset button.

Yes, we clearly are polarized, and as Martin Luther King once said: "We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.'

I hope this national tragedy leads us to make the right choice.