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Getting Real About Civility After the Arizona Shootings

Thanks in part to the president’s justly praised speech at the memorial for victims of the Arizona shooting, the media finally calmed down and stopped blaming Sarah Palin and her hunting metaphors for the tragedy in Arizona. USA Today reported that 53 percent of Americans saw the incident for what it was – the act of a madman. Most didn’t believe political language was at fault.

One certainly hopes such sentiments mark the start of a new era of levelheaded discourse. But I wouldn’t bet the farm if I had one. Last week’s meltdown over “vitriol” was the latest episode of an increasingly strident campaign against free speech by the far left. It has targeted not only conservatives like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh but also moderates like Juan Williams, Imus and just about anyone else who dares, even slightly, to exceed the bounds of political correctness. This latest round suggested that the hysteria will likely continue -- and reach new levels of ridiculousness.

One Congresswoman interviewed on cable television actually complained about conservatives’ use of the term “job killing” to describe Obamacare. What are we supposed to say instead? The alternatives to “job killing” are not exactly catchy (“job deleting?” “employment removing?”). Perhaps when talking about health care we should follow the Democrats’ lead: Forget about the impact on jobs altogether. We should say what those thousands of pages of regulations are actually going to do: create an “economy-caused disaster.”

It’s true that some debates on cable television can seem to have the dignity of a brawl in a high school lunchroom. As more than a few observers have pointed out, nasty rhetoric is used on both sides. But let us be forthright: when it comes to incendiary contributions to the lexicon, the left has for decades beaten everyone else, hands down.

I’m not just talking about “Kill Bush” and other slogans that have adorned T-shirts at demonstrations across the land in the past ten years. (There’s also the current favorite, “Guns Don’t Kill People, Sarah Palin Kills People.”) Those of us old enough to recall the political turbulence of the 1960s and 70s should also remember clenched fist power salutes and classics like “Off the Pigs!” Who do you think gave us those? (Clue: Not John Boehner.)

How the pendulum does swing. Who would have imagined that the ideological descendants of the 60s and 70s left – many of whom once rebelled against the Mad Men-style social restraints of their 50s parents – would have morphed into fussy ninnies who get their knickers in a twist over figures of speech?

Some – astoundingly – even want European-style controls on what people can and cannot say in the workplace and in a public forum. They want to force euphemisms on discourse that are hundreds of times more insipid than anyone in the 1950s could have ever dreamed up.

Sarah Palin’s supposed speech crime involved using a map placing the districts of political opponents in rifle crosshairs. But there was never the faintest evidence that the Arizona shooter had any awareness of this map, or anything Palin said. After being hammered for days in the media, she finally stepped up to defend herself, setting off another firestorm with her use of the term “blood libel,” which critics said had anti-Semitic overtones. Yet the term “blood libel” appeared several days before without incident in a widely lauded piece in the Wall Street Journal. Even Alan Dershowitz, a liberal, pointed out that the expression now has broader meaning.

I’m all for civility and understand that one doesn’t shout fire in a crowded theater. But at what point does political correctness become so inhibiting that it becomes impossible to say anything. You’ll end up with a nation as tongue-tied as King George in “The King’s Speech.” Yes, one needs mutual respect in today’s discourse. But it’s equally important to have the freedom to say what you mean.

In a democracy it’s often necessary to put up with words and ideas that you may not like. However, just because you shouldn’t take away people’s gun metaphors doesn’t mean we can’t come up with fresher verbiage. People offended by hunting images don’t have to use them. In speech, as in health care and everything else, the solution isn’t more restraints – but more choice. Besides, when you consider what supporters of Big Government are really trying to do – take our wages when they’ve never been harder to make, and tangle up our lives and our health care in hundreds of new restrictions – the old language wasn’t fully adequate. It’s not enough to “target” these people. We should relegate them and their authoritarian ideas to the trash bin of history.

Actually, make that the recycling bin.

Elizabeth Ames is a communications executive and co-author with Steve Forbes of "How Capitalism Will Save Us: Why Free People and Free Markets Are The Best Answer In Today’s Economy (Crown Business)."

Elizabeth Ames is a communications executive and co-author with Steve Forbes of “Freedom Manifesto: Why Free Markets Are Moral and Big Government Isn’t.” (Crown Business).