COMMENTARY: Turn down the volume on hate talk

c. 1996 Religion News Service

(Foy Valentine lives in Dallas. For 28 years, he directed the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is now president of the Center for Christian Ethics, an independent agency that deals with Christian social concerns.)

(RNS)-If you despise somebody, as Rush Limbaugh apparently despises Bill Clinton, why refrain from taking rhetorical target practice on the president?

It's just show business, Limbaugh's fans remind us. He's an entertainer. What harm is there in poking fun?

Just the other day, for instance, first lady Hillary Clinton's comments in a recent Time magazine interview on her thoughts about possibly adopting a baby led Limbaugh to speculate whether the president had fathered illegitimate children.

Some people might call this harmless. I think it's reprehensible.

Limbaugh is only the most visible of a number of glib commentators who specialize in reckless accusations, fabricated statistics, malicious gossip, revisionist history, atrocious manners, half-truths and bald-faced lies.

Thoughtful people have reason to be disturbed by the incivility of this brand of hateful speech that is permeating the airwaves and polluting our public discourse.

A group of scholars and clergy was sufficiently concerned about this phenomenon to join me recently in Dallas for a colloquium sponsored by the Center for Christian Ethics. Our goal was to confront the problem of incivility, to challenge its perpetrators and to search for ways to rein it in.

Here is the problem as we saw it:

Attacks on public figures are now so commonplace that democracy itself is at risk. Furthermore, this language of assault threatens the rule of law, undermines authority and chisels away at the civil contract that makes possible some measure of public peace and tranquility.

Our liberties, gained at great sacrifice over a long period of time, are being abused and endangered by a sinister perversion of the right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Trash talk, of course, is nothing new.

The language of assault, honed to a razor edge by glib tongues, vivid imaginations and elastic consciences, has been used around the world and across the centuries to foment unrest, foster rebellion and incite to riot. It prepares the way for anarchy and ushers in totalitarianism-a chilling prospect for our own country in our own time.

As the history of this troubled millennium should have taught us, evil words too often result in evil deeds. We ought not wait for another Hitler to arise or for some new totalitarian terror before we cry,"Enough!" Silence in the face of such false witness only nourishes distrust, resentment and hatred. And the colloquium participants developed the following set of principles we believe will encourage a more civil environment:

-We all must understand that robust public debate is indispensable to a healthy democracy.

-This debate is not a spectator sport. Responsible citizens can and should participate in reasoned dialogue on important public issues.

-Consumers of media as well as media owners, managers and personalities need to devote their considerable talents to developing a responsible and civilized dialogue.

-Parents, teachers, clergy and others who do the hard work of equipping people to be good citizens should be commended and supported in their work.

We all believe in the First Amendment and treasure its guarantee of free speech. But to exercise that freedom-without accepting responsibility for its misuse-only contributes to moral chaos.