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January 20, 2011

Political violence and the role of media

In the aftermath of Arizona's rampage, the public discourse and news media have been seared by a visceral debate that has blamed violence-inciting vitriol by Republican Party elements, and also a pervasive gun culture, for the shooting spree.

The former Governor of Alaska and Tea Party heavyweight, Sarah Palin, in particular, faced a barrage of criticism for suggesting that various Democratic Congressmen, including Ms. Giffords, be placed in the “crosshairs” of Republicans.

American politics is laden with increasingly toxic rhetoric with a hostile and provocative media that provides generous coverage to people who lack sobriety and reasoning in their dialogue.

Canadians, as such are on a higher moral ground because of our civil discourse and a largely restrained media. With one exception though. Since Stephen Harper came to power we are witnessing strands of ideological extremism in his policies, speeches and his vile accusations of the opposition. It is so Un-Canadian. It is alarming.

Americans are deeply divided on major issues and the chasm will not be narrowed so easily as long as people like Glen Becks, Bill O’Reillys and Sarah Palins are given undue space in the media. 

They like to titillate their audiences with hints of justified violence, including frequent reminders that they are armed and dangerous. Palin went so far as to put a target on someone who subsequently got shot.

The idea that the internet has cheapened debate and lowered standards of civility is commonly advanced, but the tone of debate is often modelled by mainstream media and merely copied by those who comment and post on public platforms. 

The highest calling of politics and the media is to make the world a better place. That is a morally essential goal.  The media can, as we know, promote fear, hatred, and extremism. Can it also lead us to greater civility and more productive debate? Yes, it has immense potential to build civility or destroy it.

After the tragic events in Tuscon, Arizona, attention quickly focused on the role that divisive and aggressive media may have played in this catastrophe. This should be a moment to reflect on the role that media can play in directing the political dialogue in a democratic society.

The media can choose to provoke the least stable, or it can choose to strengthen democracy, civility, and the rule of law.

When the former Yugoslavia was erupting in ethnic cleansing and massacres, Macedonia's ethnically diverse population remained at peace. South Africa made the transition from Apartheid to majority rule largely without violence. In these and other places, media that highlighted the humanity of all involved played a very positive role.

What happened in United States is profoundly instructive to us in Canada. Instead of simply repeating the anger and allegations of each side-which may have the effect of deepening the conflict or inciting violence, journalists are in a unique position to uncover the causes of conflict and discover opportunities for finding common ground.

If America wishes to sustain its cherished democratic values, violent political rhetoric and political violence must cease. The sooner, the better. Civility in robust national debates is at the heart of democracy. It invites and not repels public participation.

Coming under heavy criticism, Fox news Chief Roger Ailes says the network will tone down fiery rhetoric. Critics believe this truce is going to be short lived. The toxic, uncivil, aggressive vitriol will be on hold temporarily. 

As the memory of Arizona fades, Beck, O’Reilley, the prize assets of Fox news and their ilk will once again be allowed to “reload”.

Javed Akbar is a free lance writer based in Toronto.

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