After Arizona: Time for Nonviolent Communication

I actually felt a little sorry for the conservative pundits who were forced to answer for inflammatory words that, by wide consensus, contributed to the horrible shootings in Tucson.

Mona Charen was reduced to spluttering to Tom Ashbrook of NPR's "On Point" that conservatives are not actually bloodthirsty proponents of assassination.

Obama has used the odd gun metaphor, too, many Republicans were quick to point out.

You can hardly blame them for not wanting to take the rap for Jared Loughner's crazed shooting spree.

Still, there is no denying the craziness stirred up on the right, especially by Sarah Palin. Remember the rallies toward the end of the Presidential election, where John McCain was forced to talk down some very edgy characters who had been worked into a lather by his running mate's winking references to terrorists, Muslims, and the Second Amendment?

Then, instead of standing up and saying she felt awful and never meant for her warlike political rhetoric to be taken literally, Palin put out the pathetic claim that the target graphic her web site painted on members including Representative Gabrielle Giffords were "surveyors' marks" not gun sites. That cowardliness, more than her trademark bellicosity, may be what sinks Palin politically.

The wishy-washy response--that both Democrats and Republicans are equally guilty of using violent rhetoric--is just plain silly.

Ross Douthat typifies this: "If overheated rhetoric and martial imagery really led inexorably to murder, then both parties would belong in the dock," Douthat writes.

But there is no comparison between what the Tea Partiers have encouraged and the Obama campaign.

At the same time, there is something distasteful about pundits and politicians who were quick to turn the tragedy in Tucson to their political advantage.

Already, Republicans and Democrats are arguing about who has the high ground.

But the whole argument misses the point. Partisanship did not cause the murders and maimings in Tucson. Deliberately stoking some frightening elements in our culture—rage, bigotry, a proclivity for guns, and a fantasy of lone-ranger, frontier justice—did.

Listening to the coverage, and the arguments, about the awful events in Tucson, put me in mind of a seminar in nonviolent communication I attended last year. The course was based on the work of Marshall Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist who pioneered a Gandhian approach to communication aimed at increasing compassion and peace. Violence, in this model, begins with speech--a particularly relevant theory this week.

It is a much deeper theory than the facile arguments of Beltway pundits--and really goes to the root of building a nonviolent society. In Rosenberg's opinion, we hardly understand the seeds of violence planted in the way we speak with each other.

He has put this theory into practice around the world--working with civil rights activists, teachers, mental health professionals, police and prison guards, and in war-torn countries and refugee camps.

The seminar I attended focused on the way we speak to children.

I realize I am getting a long way from Tucson here. But if we want to talk about building a more peaceful, civil society, we need to get beyond the whole talking-point ping-pong match and look at what it would mean to nurture a nonviolent culture.

I was drawn to nonviolent communication because I met a handful of adults whose relaxed, positive style with children, particularly when it comes to conflict resolution, deeply impressed me. The teachers at my daughters' day care center--Red Caboose in Madison, Wisconsin--and a university student and former babysitter, who was one of the warmest, most caring people I've ever met, had an amazing ability to bring peace to groups of kids. It turns out that all of them had studied nonviolent communication, or NVC, as Rosenberg's students call it.

In his book, Rosenberg writes: "Believing that it is our nature to enjoy giving and receiving in a compassionate manner, I have been preoccupied most of my life with two questions. What happens to disconnect us from our compassionate nature, leading us to behave violently and exploitatively? And conversely, what allows some people to stay connected to their compassionate nature under even the most trying circumstances?"

He goes on to outline a whole practice of using clear, nonjudgmental language, of listening compassionately.

He tells incredible stories about people in terrible circumstances--oppressed Palestinian refugees, Jewish prisoners in concentration camps, gang members and victims of racist attack--using the principles of nonviolent communication to overcome their rage and fear and to connect where compassion and connection seemed impossible.

"NVC is founded on language and communication skills that strengthen our ability to remain human, even under trying conditions. It contains nothing new; all that has been integrated into NVC has been known for centuries."

The whole idea of this humanizing practice is to attempt to build connection instead of emphasizing difference, and tearing ourselves--and ultimately our society--apart. It reads like a prescription for our embattled, fractured times:

"As NVC replaces our old patterns of defending, withdrawing, or attacking in the face of judgment and criticism, we come to perceive ourselves and others, as well as our intentions and relationships, in a new light. Resistance, defensiveness, and violent reactions are minimized. When we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt, and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion. Through its emphasis on deep listening—to ourselves as well as others—NVC fosters respect, attentiveness, and empathy, and engenders a mutual desire to give from the heart."

In the midst of our 24-hour political shout-fest, Rosenberg’s insights are like cool water on a burn wound.

If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Nader to the Times: 'There Is Too a Left!'"

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