After the Tucson atrocity, President Obama advised that we "make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds."
Yet professional writers about politics are not likely to keep in mind the president's ideal of healing. Indeed, many columnists are expert in wounding one population while comforting another. Readers must be attentive to elementary logic to guard against being cajoled or bamboozled into wrongful opinions or, perhaps more commonly, to avoid having some deficient or even mistaken opinions reinforced.
When Diana West and Gene Lyons write on the same subject — the Tucson shootings — they give us a chance to examine their logic and bias and to see whether they are healing or wounding.
Diana West emphasizes what she calls "the Big Lie" — "the heinous movement on the left to blame conservative politicians, political groups and pundits, but mainly Sarah Palin — for causing the crime, for creating the conditions unique to the crime, with 'heated rhetoric' and 'violent imagery' " ("Tragedy exposes 'the Big Lie,'" Herald, Jan. 16).
Gene Lyons also writes about the misuse of language for political purposes ("The exploitation of road rage," Herald, Jan. 21). But Lyons' fault-finding is more specific than is West's. Rather than condemning a vaguely large group (West's "heinous movement on the left"), Lyons names a specific individual, Rush Limbaugh, as a leading damager of public discourse.
Lyons says, "Ever since Rush Limbaugh adapted the techniques of drive-time sports radio to politics — the loudmouth hyperbole, the fake omniscience, the mute button — the mass-marketing of outrage to people stuck in freeway traffic with blood-pressure levels already approaching the blowout range has coarsened public discourse to the level of road rage." Pointing out an example of libelous irresponsibility, Lyons quotes Limbaugh : "'What (accused assassin) Mr. Loughner knows is that he has the full support of a major political party. … The Democratic Party is attempting to find anybody but him to blame."'
Lyons specifies the wrong-doer and quotes him particularly, in contrast to West, who, like Limbaugh, attacks an inadequately defined large group. But, at least, West does not abandon reason in favor of slander to the extent Limbaugh does in his accusing the Democratic Party of supporting the Tucson killer. Limbaugh wants to wound — wholesale.
Like most political commentators, I suppose, both Lyons and West sometimes depend upon sweeping generalization, but in the articles now being considered Lyons commits no other logical fallacy, whereas West does. West's article depends upon the black-or-white fallacy. She says Republicans reacted to the shootings one way, Democrats another. The Democratic reaction, she explains, includes "the Big-Lie drive to judge Republicans guilty of the Arizona crime and thereafter sentence them to a kind of peer-pressured censorship." West aims if not to wound, at least to belittle.
About two-thirds of the way through his Tucson address, President Obama advises with prophetic insight : "But what we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let us do so with a good dose of humility." In conclusion, the president spoke of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green: "I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it."
Unfortunately, we will never know whether Christina would have continued her strong interest in government. Her mother told ABC News that Christina had "talked about getting all the parties to come together so we could live in a better country." So Christina was already an advanced student of fair-mindedness. She could have taught our political writers a thing or two.