For my politics column today, I’d wanted to write about President Obama’s speech last night at the memorial for the victims of this past weekend’s shooting, and about virulent language in public debate more generally. So much of it has been said already (such is the downfall of writing weekly on the subject, rather than daily) with varying levels of accusation, defensiveness, and rational discussion in tone.
To be honest, it’s all a little exhausting because I live it every day. This abstract discussion over the past few days has really hit home for me. As I’ve talked about before, I work for an elected official. In fact, until I was just recently promoted, my job title was Community Outreach Director, the same job that Gabriel Zimmerman had. I probably don’t need to tell you that in the middle of all that happened, that’s what sent the biggest chill up my spine. In short, it was and still is my responsibility to filter all of the phone calls and letters and e-mails and drop-ins that we get from Bossman’s constituents.
Now, for the most part, the people are well-intentioned and just want or need some level of interaction with their elected representative. They need help receiving benefits of some kind, they are trying to tell Bossman how important funding is for a particular program that helps them and their families, they want to let us know how they feel about a piece of legislation. Most people are respectful. They’re not often well-informed, but they are trying the best they can to get by. This makes up the majority of my interactions with constituents.
Others, though… Others make me understand exactly how Saturday’s terrible events manage to happen. People at town hall meetings, red faced and shouting, fingers pointing, screaming the same point incoherently over and over. Being shouted at over the phone for ten minutes at a time by people who refuse to leave their names about how Bossman is a baby killer and a fag lover who wants to steal all their money and how he will be made to pay. Scribbles from mentally unstable residents of semi-secure facilities asking for his autograph and a photo of his wife. For these – at least the ones with a paper trail – I have what I like to call “the crazy bucket.” (Perhaps I should be more sensitive, given that I have a history of mental illness in my own family, but the name has stuck.) These are the letters we hang on to in case anything terrible were to happen some day. The fact that it’s something I have to think about, provisions for a worst case scenario, just so that Bossman can do his job serving the people he was elected to represent is depressing and scary. We laugh at the twelve page screeds because it keeps us from crying.
Two summers ago, a local radio host was taking calls from listeners about politicians. A joke of some sort was made; it’s been a long time, but it was something about “taking them out” or “hunting them.” The radio host’s response was, “Yeah, that’s great. Wouldn’t it be hilarious if you walked into your living room and found a stuffed [Bossman]’s head hanging on your wall?” Ha. Ha. Ha. It was a throwaway line, and nothing came of it. No one rushed Bossman in the grocery store or a town hall meeting with a gun. We didn’t pursue it with the FCC for fear of Bossman being called a bad sport who couldn’t take a joke in the year preceding an election. Obviously, the DJ would have claimed, it was a joke that wasn’t intended to spur anyone to actual violence.
And yet here we are today. Because someone took someone else’s violent, hyperbolic words at face value. Words have meanings. I hope that this tragic incident does get people to listen to the President and Jon Stewart and tone down their rhetoric a little bit. But more than anything else, I hope that these same people will take a deep breath before speaking in the future to realize that these are actual people their words are directed about, people who have real lives, goals, and feelings of their own. We can’t take that for granted.