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Posted at 9:18 AM ET, 01/11/2011


By Alexandra Petri

Everyone is shouting.

It starts innocently enough. You see someone else shouting. "Stop shouting!" you say. He doesn't stop. "Stop shouting!" you insist, more loudly. "You need to stop shouting and be quiet!" Suddenly you find that you are shouting, too. Everyone is shouting.

In the wake of the tragedy in Tucson, the gloves are coming off. The rhetoric about how heated our rhetoric has become is becoming increasingly, well, heated. Glenn Beck is calling for "Offense!" and Keith Olbermann is shouting about "perfect hypocrisy" with air quotes flying. "You ill-intentioned imbeciles need to quit being noisy, bigoted idiots!" one side shouts. "You noisy, bigoted idiots need to stop being ill-intentioned imbeciles!" the other yells back.

Reality is turning into reality television. And, as we know, to make your show dynamic, you don't keep the quiet, retiring folks who are encouraging people to Give Peace a Chance! You keep the pugnacious contenders who are raring to go at each other, sabotaging their competitors' wardrobes and poking their flans! Forget being polite, the logic goes. This is entertainment! Are you not entertained?

And in the realm of 24-hour-opinion-journalism, where the race always goes to the one who shouts the loudest, it seems impossible to restrain these tendencies.

But someone has to. You can't hear yourself think!

Everyone is shouting.

Can't we stop yelling about how the yelling needs to stop, even for a second, to remember the victims and reflect on what actually happened? There was supposed to be a moment of silence yesterday. Can we try that again?

Yes, the hateful rhetoric that everyone complains about was buzzing in the air throughout the life of this troubled young man. But it did not make him do what he did.

This was an insane individual whose writings and videos suggest that he was unhinged in a way unconnected to any particular political creed. He didn't develop his grudge against Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) because she was a Democrat. He nursed this grudge because she couldn't tell him "What is government if words have no meaning?" (Can you imagine if he'd asked Sarah Palin this question?)

Jared Loughner is not a maniacal ideologue, and it's a shame that we're having a discussion as though he were.

Yes, public debate these days is impolite. And words do have power. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words are more insidious entirely. Metaphors, like guns, can be dangerous when loaded.

But as Mark Twain (or Abraham Lincoln or Brigham Young) once said, "He who takes offense when no offense is intended is a fool."

And that's the most bothersome thing about this debate. Amending public speech to prevent any impact it might have on deranged minds like Mr. Loughner's would hamstring it entirely.

But Young or Twain or Lincoln went on to note, "and he who takes offense when offense is intended is a greater fool." It's one thing to place limitations on speech -- wrong -- and another thing entirely to exercise discretion. (I don't exercise my discretion enough and as a consequence it is flabby and pants a lot when we climb hills.) With great amplification comes some responsibility.

It seems like it should be so simple. "Instead of suggesting on the air that we kill and/or behead anyone, or that people are the "Worst Things Ever," some newscaster will say, "why don't we, uh, do whatever else it is we do."

There must be something! People haven't always insisted on mayhem.

I understand that politely stating your objections to the other party's perspective does not make for gripping television. Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker have been trying this for some time, and their ratings are lower than this one show on Discovery called "Paint Drying While Someone Reads You the Wikipedia Entry on Alopecia."

I prefer television to have as much yelling as possible, since I watch it to escape and my home life is very pleasant. But I'm sure other people feel differently. Oprah Winfrey can't be the only one out there who wants to give us constructive programming.

So if everyone could just stop shouting for a second, we could try it! I said, IF EVERYONE COULD STOP YELLING!


By Alexandra Petri  | January 11, 2011; 9:18 AM ET
Categories:  Epic Failures, Petri, Reality? Television, Worst Things Ever  | Tags:  America, Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann, Sarah Palin, censorship, media, the power of myth  
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This is a most excellent column. I loved the Brigham Young quote:

"He who takes offense when no offense is intended is a fool, and he who takes offense when offense is intended is a greater fool."

Although he who takes offense may be a fool, he also tends to be more motivated to get off his butt and do things, like vote. Politicians know this, and try to make sure that he who takes offense is foolish enough to take offense at the other guy.

As long as angry people decide elections, our politicians will make us angry. But by adding to the overall level of anger, they make it more likely that someone like Jared Lee Loughner will decide to kill a lot of people because he didn't like the answer to this question: "What is government if words have no meaning?"

The answer is that "government" is a group of living, breathing, precious human beings whose words sometimes may not mean much, but their lives mean everything to us.

Posted by: divtune | January 11, 2011 6:32 PM | Report abuse

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