14 January 2011

How Public Debate Should Be Conducted

Edited excerpts from President Barrack Obama's speech on 12 January 2011 in memory of those killed or wounded at Tucson, Arizona, on 8 January 2011


When a tragedy strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations — to try to impose some order on the chaos, and make sense out of that which seems senseless.  Already we've seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health systems.  Much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.

But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized — at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do —  it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.

What we can't do is use this as one more occasion to turn on one another.  Let each of us do so with a good dose of humility.  Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.

Sudden loss also forces us to look forward, to reflect on the present and the future, on the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships with those who are still with us.  We may ask ourselves if we've shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to the people in our lives.  Perhaps we question whether we are doing right by our children, or our community, and whether our priorities are in order.  We recognize our own mortality, and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame - but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in bettering the lives of others.

That process of reflection, of making sure we align our values with our actions, is what is required.

If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let's make sure it's not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness.

Let's remember only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation.  We can question each other's ideas without questioning each other's love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.

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