Americans contemplate toning down their rhetoric

February 26, 2011

Angry and grief-stricken over the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Saturday, Alicia Berhow typed out a Facebook posting she’d later regret. As she recalls, it went something like, “Sarah Palin, you disgust me.”

In doing so, she now says, she became part of a problem that she believes was illuminated by the incident that took the lives of six people and injured 14 others, including Giffords: the coarse tenor of the political conversation in the United States these days. A day later, after her emotions had subsided, Berhow pledged to use her words more carefully.

“We lose the decent part, and that can be difficult to get back,” recalled Berhow, a former Democratic congressional staffer who now works for a business association in Orange County, Calif. “Words do have consequences.”

There is no evidence that the suspect, Jared Lee Loughner, was motivated by a partisan ideology or a call to arms — metaphorical or otherwise — that he might have heard on the radio or seen on cable television. But the incident spurred some self-reflection among many who said it was a reality check, a reminder that the country could do with a more civil tongue and some mutual respect.

Hundreds of people responded to a Web inquiry in The Washington Post that asked if they were examining their own tone in the wake of the shootings. Many were defiant, confident that they had struck the right balance while the other side of the political spectrum was going too far. Conservatives, under attack from liberals who initially blamed the tea party movement, defended the passion they have expressed over the past two years and accused liberals of trying to silence them.

A few responded that they were engaging in self-examination. In a follow-up phone interview, John Ryan, a Catholic church worker and political independent, said he took a moment over the weekend to consider those times that he yelled at the television in response to a news story or commentary with which he disagreed.

“Even if I’m not directly yelling at the person, it’s not helping the situation,” the Manchester, Conn., resident said.

Nathan Leamer, a staffer for a Republican lawmaker in Grand Rapids, Mich., was forced to recall those impassioned statements he made as a young man in defense of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. How many people did I offend, he wondered. And how wise was it to express himself with such conviction, now that his views have moderated somewhat?

“I’m a passionate person,” he said, but he added that he has been reminded lately of that old adage about saying nothing if you can’t say anything nice. “That doesn’t mean not to be critical, but to be careful with what and how I say it.”

sandhya@washpost.com

Sandhya Somashekhar is a health reporter for the Washington Post.
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