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OP-ED Toxic Rhetoric, Time to Re-evaluate our Public Discourse

January 9, 2011

I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.
– Voltaire

I am all too aware of the power of words. I was bullied by an abusive father who used words to abuse me. But I was my own person and found ironically, refuge and strength in language. It was my mother who taught me to love poetry and rhymes and planted the seeds for my love of words and language. I learned to read young and became an advanced reader. I was fascinated by words. I used to sit and read the illustrated Websters Dictionary. I was a spelling bee winner. I read Homer’s Iliad at age eleven. When I returned to college in 1995, I took all English classes. Reading, writing, and speaking are the tools of human communication. What we say and how we say it has power – it matters – it has influence. What we express, we own: what words we choose, the tone we use, what we imply. In a country where the First Amendment protects free speech and elevates its value to the highest position, the greatest insult is to lower ourselves to using that freedom for negative purposes, for hatred and bigotry. But, our Constitution is so great in its wisdom, that even those forms of speech are protected. Why? Because Americans are born free. We are free to say what we want, when we want. We are free to criticize our government with no fear of reprisal. The responsibility falls on the individual to use their freedom as they see fit. But there are limitations. We have laws that protect against defamation.

What is Defamation?
In common law jurisdictions, slander refers to a malicious, false, and defamatory spoken statement or report, while libel refers to any other form of communication such as written words or images. Most jurisdictions allow legal actions, civil and/or criminal, to deter various kinds of defamation and retaliate against groundless criticism. Related to defamation is public disclosure of private facts, which arises where one person reveals information that is not of public concern, and the release of which would offend a reasonable person. “Unlike [with] libel, truth is not a defense for invasion of privacy.”[not verified in body.

False light laws are “intended primarily to protect the plaintiff’s mental or emotional well-being.” If a publication of information is false, then a tort of defamation might have occurred. If that communication is not technically false but is still misleading, then a tort of false light might have occurred

The highly charged political rhetoric being spewed daily on talks shows by pundits, cable news by so-called op-ed journalists, and even on Cspan by politicians, is repugnant. It is inflammatory by nature and is used to get attention to a particular point of view. It is said with no consideration for the potential negative consequences.

But there are worse forms of communication designed to purposely mislead, namely the use of disinformation.

What is Disinformation?
Disinformation is false or inaccurate information that is spread deliberately with intentions of turning genuine information useless. For this reason, it is synonymous with and sometimes called black propaganda. It is an act of deception and false statements to convince someone of untruth. Disinformation should not be confused with misinformation, information that is unintentionally false.

Unlike traditional propaganda techniques designed to engage emotional support, disinformation is designed to manipulate the audience at the rational level by either discrediting conflicting information or supporting false conclusions. A common disinformation tactic is to mix some truth and observation with false conclusions and lies, or to reveal part of the truth while presenting it as the whole (a limited hangout).

Questions must be asked then: In America’s political arena today, has disinformation become the predominant way of engaging in our political speech? And if so, to what end? And has vitriolic rhetoric become so accepted that civil discourse has been crowded out? What ambition underlies such behavior that its self-serving ways excuses this behavior?

What I do not hear today in our media, or read in our newspapers, is the fact that the prime victim of yesterday’s heinous act of murder could have been our President, our head of state. If it had been, what then? Are we courting upheaval? Is this what we want? Is it in America’s best interest to continue to tolerate and even promote this toxic rhetoric? When and where do we draw the line, the ethical line? It is this writers opinion that the time is now, for it is important we address this issue head on as it has real human consequences. I would hope that those in positions of influence and power will recheck their language and their rhetoric, and rededicate themselves to constructive civil discourse. Americans deserve no less.

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