Words Matter: Bill Clinton

In light of the Arizona shootings, there is considerable discussion in the media about the influence of violent and aggressive speech in political debate.

This is an extract from a speech given by former President Bill Clinton to the Center for American Progress Action Fund in April 2010:

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Clinton talked of the role of right-wing media and radio talkback hosts in the 1990s. He said participants in the political debate need to be responsible in their use of rhetoric because it falls on the “serious and the delirious alike”:

We can’t let the debate veer so far into hatred that we lose focus of our common humanity. It’s really important. We can’t ever fudge the fact that there’s a basic line dividing criticism from violence or its advocacy, and that the closer you get to the line and the more responsibility you have, you have to think about the echo chamber in which your words resonate. […]

But what we learned from Oklahoma City is not that we should gag each other or we should reduce our passion for the positions that we hold, but the words we use really do matter because there are — there’s this vast echo chamber, and they go across space, and they fall on the serious and the delirious alike. They fall on the connected and the unhinged alike. And I am not trying to muzzle anybody, but one of the things that the conservatives have always brought to the table in America is that no law can replace personal responsibility. And the more power you have, and the more influence you have, the more responsibility you have.

Clinton spoke of how he had changed his own tendency to refer to “federal bureaucrats” in a disparaging way when he disagreed with some aspect of government policy:

Oklahoma City proved that beyond the law, there is no freedom, and there is a difference between criticizing a policy or a politician, and demonizing the government that guarantees our freedoms and the public servants who implement them. And the more prominence you have in politics or media or some other pillar of public life, the more you have to keep that in mind. I acknowledged that in my political career, I had more on than one occasion, in the face of a government policy I disagreed with or a practice that I thought was insensitive, referred in a disparaging way generally to “federal bureaucrats,” as if all of them were arrogant or insensitive or unresponsive, and I have never done it again. You could not read the stories of the lives of the people who perished in Oklahoma City and not respond in that way.

FULL TEXT OF CLINTON’S SPEECH:

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