The other day a friend of mine posted a quote from Penn Jillette on his Facebook wall - "F%*K Civility. The marketplace of ideas cannot be toned down for the insane."
I think it is an important statement and bears some scrutiny. First off, I don't think the discussions around recent political rhetoric are really about civility. Any single statement or image might be innocuous enough and reasonably interpreted as a metaphor... Palin's crosshairs may not be very different than the Democratic map with targets on it. Martial language is often used in political battles. You might even pass on "Don't retreat, reload" and argue that it is clearly metaphoric. Other statements are less easy to dismiss. Angle's "2nd amendment solutions" seems a pretty unambiguous statement that the use of guns at times of political disagreement is not only allowed but even encouraged. Joyce Kaufman's "if ballots don't work, bullets will" is even less ambiguous. Add those who continue to call the Obama administration illegitimate... When you place all of these kinds of statements together, it is very difficult to understand them as anything other than incitement to violence. If the Obama administration is illegitimate, then the ballots did not work so it is time for bullets. We have seen FBI and Secret Service reports that since the '08 election death threats against politicians, especially the president, have sky-rocketed. I do not believe this is a coincidence. So, I don't think it is about civility at all... let the pols and the talk show folk call somebody an idiot, make fun of them, disagree vehemently, whatever... they don't need to be civil, but calling for violence is something else altogether.
Now back to Jillette's comment because I think it is an important one for a variety of reasons. First off, it seems to acknowledge that the language did, does, or at least can incite people, albeit crazy ones, to violence. And then it argues that regardless of that, we must not allow political discourse to be defined by the crazies. I think he is correct on both counts. Here's the problem. We have people engaged in the discussion who are clueless. Many on the right just don't seem to get it. I have seen multiple arguments that calling for 2nd amendment solutions or proposing that bullets are the proper solution when the ballot box doesn't go your way are in any way related to violence. Having important discussions implies responsibility. Those who engage in public discourse have to weigh their words and understand what the possible results might be.
Again, the teaching from my CPE days is important... Chaplain Cholke never said "don't preach," he said, "be careful what you preach because someone may believe you." Those words ring true for political leaders as well... be careful what you say, someone will believe you and possibly will act upon those words.