America is a conflicted and violent country. Jared Loughner’s recent rampage in Tucson hardly constitutes unprecedented behavior. We’ve been fighting and stitching each other up since Jamestown.
George Washington, an optimistic enough soul to cross the ice-clogged Delaware River at night in a rainstorm, saw this collective fractiousness as a liability to the republic.
In his farewell address in 1797, Washington warned, "The alternative domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries, has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism."
There’s a singular difference between Washington’s day and ours: we’ve overlooked the connection between bad language and bad behavior. Sigmund Freud said that the first human who hurled an insult instead of a rock was the founder of civilization.
For that to be true, however, insults have to mean something. In 1838, Congressmen Jonathan Cilley of Maine insulted a friend of Kentucky solon William Graves; a duel ensued and Cilley died. Now, demeaning talk is the common currency of the American vocabulary. We’ve become inured to innuendo.
Well, sorry Sigmund, violence hides itself in the exoskeleton of hateful language. It’s not axiomatic, of course. Toothless blowhards are as common as pond water. But from John Brown’s bloody raids on Kansas to Timothy McVeigh’s horrific acts in Kansas City to Ted Kaczynski's mail bombs, hateful rhetoric accompanies -- usually precedes -- violence.
Demographics, technology, and fantasy complicate this connection. In 1797, the U.S. population was just over 5 million. Now it’s 360 million. We talk at each other through Tweets and Facebook or listen to (or watch) the one-way rants of well-paid megaphones. Communication can be done instantly, impulsively. It took, by comparison, seven days for the news of Washington’s death at Mt. Vernon in 1799 to reach New York City.
The fantasy part comes in believing that participating in a talk show (which we can turn off as soon as we’ve heard our own voice) qualifies as a meaningful conversation. "Follow me on Twitter," is not an encouraging prologue to a discussion that solves problems.
Americans have long bridled against amending the freedom to speak our minds. What we’ve forgotten is that if we won’t control our individual speech, someone will try to control it for us. The phrase keeping a civil tongue in your head has less to do with manners and applies more to protecting America’s ace-in-the-hole: pluralism: I may not like you (or your ideas) and you may not like me (or my ideas) but we’re going to give and take on issues in order to keep a civil society.
Pluralism is the temple next to the mosque; the union hall beside the free-enterprise institute; the Planned Parenthood clinic across the street from a Catholic Church.
Pluralism rests on the ability to listen to a new idea and do so without flying into a panic. Examples of such reactions abound. In 1935, Congressmen opposed to Social Security predicted it would "impose a crushing burden upon industry and upon labor," and "destroy old age retirement systems set up by private industries." Remember those grim scenarios projected during school integration: Integration is Communism, declared the good people of Pulaski County, Arkansas).
We’re also uneasy as well as conflicted. Gallup polls taken over the last two years show that a record number of Americans, upwards of 90 percent, are dissatisfied (a favorite Gallup word for overall unhappiness) "with the way things are going in the U.S. at this time," the lowest ranking in 30 years.
We’re unsettled because things are not going as our ideology (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) promised. Still, we forge ahead, enchanted by our own voice as we shoot down the ideas of others. We only engage in civil discussion after disaster (9-11 or the near collapse of GM) arrives at our door.
We can’t control other people’s speech, only our own. The opportunities to exercise a civil tongue show up everywhere: texting, tweeting, talk shows, or letters to the editor. More importantly, the venues that prove that you’re interested in resolution as opposed to conquest are close to home: talking to our children about that dreaded neighbor and her barking dog or discussing the ideas of a "liberal" politician with our co-workers or showing up at town council to debate zoning.
That means bolstering our confidence that we can listen civilly, adapt, and buck ourselves out of where we are now: a polarized nation of dead-end declaratives.
Sam Western of Sheridan has been a correspondent to the Economist since 1984. His most recent book is "A Random Census of Souls," a book of poetry published in 2009.