Thoughts on Civil Discourse in the Wake of Violence

Thoughts on Civil Discourse in the Wake of Violence

I am saddened today as we hear about the violence against two staff members and the destruction of Congressman Gerry Connolly’s field office in Fairfax City by a man with a metal bat. When I announced my decision not to run for office again, I cited the increased vitriol, hateful rhetoric, and lack of civility in our public discourse. It is hard to look at a situation such as today, or reflect on the events of Jan. 6, 2021, and not see some correlation between the divisive politics of hate which depersonalize our political foes into caricatures of villains and the acts of violence. 

According to her Congressional Testimony on March 31, 2022, Rachel Kleinfeld, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, there was an acceleration of political violence between 2016 and 2020 and the level of acceptance and support for political violence has also increased by members of both political parties. Justifications are steeped in the importance of protecting the traditional American way of life, validity of elections, and other false or misleading narratives. Threats against members of Congress have almost doubled, and hate crimes are increasing, with rates higher in 2021 than in the year following 9/11.

More disturbing than even historic numbers is the broader base of individuals who are involved in these acts of aggression. Acts of aggression like what happened today at Connolly’s office are no longer contained to extremist groups, but have spread to lone actors reacting to the rhetoric they are hearing or seeing online, in public meetings and feeling compelled to take aggressive action. 

We do not know the motivation of the intruder in Connolly’s office. There have been moments and periods of time, as an elected school board member, where I worried about my colleagues, our staff, and my own safety during official proceedings when emotionally charged issues came before the board. 

We do know that each of us can do our part to mitigate these acts. Collectively, we must tone down the divisive rhetoric, vilifying name calling, and character assassination. The issues before our Federal, State legislatures, and local governments are too important to trivialize with destructive and non-productive behavior. We must focus on the issues before our policy making bodies that affect the everyday lives of our community members. 

We can realize that there are policy areas where groups or individuals may align on individual issues and others where the makeup of a group supporting an issue may be different. However, this is only possible if the discourse focuses on the content of the policy issues and does not cast aspersions on the character of individuals in a group.

Together we can achieve the American dream of a more perfect union by reenforcing our foundations of civil discourse.

Karen Corbett Sanders is the Mount Vernon District representative on the Fairfax County School Board. Sanders is not seeking reelection.