Words of Hatred, Words of Healing: Re-forming our Political Discourse

[Editor's Note: Please welcome our newest contributor, Caitlin Reyes Brune! This is Caitlin's first post for Her Blueprint. To find out more about Caitlin, visit our Contributor's page.]

"...What if the mightiest word is love?
Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.
In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light."

(from Praise Song for the Day, written and spoken by poet Elizabeth Alexander at the inauguration of US President Barack Obama, 20 January 2009 and subsequently published in Crave Radiance, a collection of new and previously published poems, pp. 247-248)

As Saturday’s news of the cold-blooded, brutal shooting of US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and a score of others reverberated around the vast space of digital media, I brooded ruefully about the state of political discourse. How, rather than embracing the “sharp sparkle” and “widening pool of light” that poet Elizabeth Alexander invoked and that so many Americans experienced so palpably on that crisp January morning in 2009, had we managed to regress into the worst kind of darkness imaginable: that which prompts one human being to irrevocably disregard the humanity of another?

While the prevailing political vitriol is undoubtedly familiar to most Americans, with bi-polar partisan politics being rendered all the more insane in the hands of uncensored, often misinformed media personalities, the US is not alone in suffering the poisonous flow of toxic communication concerning political issues. Indeed, Pakistan opened 2011 by burying another political leader. A member of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party – the same party of former Pakistani Prime Minister and assassination victim Benazir Bhutto – Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, lost his life at the hands of his own security guard. Taseer was allegedly shot due to his support for repeal of the country’s blasphemy laws and the release of Asia Bibi, the first woman in Pakistan to be convicted of blasphemy.

In neighboring southeast Asia, women’s rights activist, human rights defender, and elected member of the Cambodian Parliament Mu Sochua has spent almost two years embroiled in a highly-charged lawsuit with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Sochua, a prominent leader within the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, was publicly slandered by the Prime Minister in April 2009. In return for requesting an apology, she was accused of blasphemy, stripped of her parliamentary immunity, and extremely constrained in her ability to raise issues of transparency and human rights. Sochua has labored for nearly two years to clear her name, to ensure freedom of speech in Cambodia, and promote both political transparency and an end to corruption.

These separate instances bring into sharp relief the growing global preference for polarization over compromise or consensus, for scathing diatribes rather than civil conversation, for violent over nonviolent means of dispute resolution.

Sunday morning, seeking solace from the devastating news coming out of Arizona and the hate mongering that seems to characterize far too much of our global socio-political sphere, I loaded my iPod with one of my favorite weekly podcasts (American Public Media’s program, Being) and headed for a scenic path alongside the Monterey Bay. As if massaging balm into a patch of raw, scorched flesh, the words of poet Elizabeth Alexander trickled down the headset wires, restoring comfort in mind and heart.

I returned from my walk along the shores of Monterey Bay, new lines of poetry drifting in the space between my temples, and sat down to write. Opening my laptop to Sunday morning’s New York Times homepage, a collage of headlines pulled me back to the “real” world: Turning Point in Discourse, but Which Direction?; Bloodshed Puts New Focus on Vitriol in Politics; U.S. Cites Evidence of Assassination Plot; and on and on. I began to click through the stories, digesting their words.

“Pima County, Arizona Sheriff Clarence Dupnik blamed the toxic political environment in Arizona. There were immediate national reverberations as Democrats denounced the fierce partisan atmosphere in Ms. Gifford’s district and top Republicans quickly condemned the violence . . .” read one of the lead articles (emphasis added). One after the other Times and wire reporters belabored the details of the crime. Columnist after columnist sized up the mood in Washington and posited whether the Arizona tragedy could change the tenor of political speech across the nation. Fresh from my immersion in poetry, I marveled how, even where pleading for a new tone and increased sensitivity, charged and value-laden speech seemed to prevail.

I struggled to recall the inspiring images from my stroll . . . the diaphanous sparkle of the rising sun glinting off the Bay where it nearly met the horizon; the view of rising waves through a sandstone arch dramatically backlit by the eastern sky; a tousled haired 30-something year-old guy reclined in the passenger seat of an idling car, The Sonnets of William Shakespeare poised just inches from his intent gaze.

In her essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” Audre Lorde asserts, “The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. This is poetry as illumination. . .”

Poetry – language that emboldens and uplifts – can provide a unique, rarified light in which to consider the people, events, and feelings that populate our lives. Ideally, over time it can perhaps help to re-shape our words and our relationships, informing them with greater sensitivity and understanding. At a minimum, it can offer fresh ways to talk about the more challenging aspects of being a very diverse human race. As Elizabeth Alexander asserts in Ars Poetica #100: I Believe, it also begs a larger question of its reader: “Are we not of interest to each other?”

Musing on the waves of thought engendered by Elizabeth Alexander, Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, and Gwendolyn Brooks, I find myself asking . . .

What if, rather than shrieking nastily across hedges and aisles, violently casting off shards of hatred and blame, we all took a little time to immerse ourselves in the light of poetry?

What if we began to seriously, compassionately explore some of the questions it raises about the human condition?

What if, in so doing, we discovered that “the mightiest word is love?”

What if . . .?

Read or Watch Obama's Tuscon Speech about the tragedy in Arizona [Mother Jones]