Recently I found myself at the table when a particularly vociferous disagreement erupted between two thinking and engaged folks, each with their own particularly impassioned views on life and the body politic. As personal insults were exchanged, it reminded me of the only physical beating ever to take place on the floor of the U.S. Senate. In May of 1856, a member of that august body, Charles Sumner, had laid out a blistering attack on supporters of the U.S. system of chattel slavery including remarks directed in personal offense at Senator Andrew Butler. Some supported Sumner’s then-considered uninformed and radical point of view, while others did not. Regardless of the value of the discourse, Butler’s nephew, a member of the House of Representatives, believed that a line had been crossed and took it upon himself to enter the Senate chamber and promptly beat Sumner.
Opinion about Butler’s escalation of the matter was varied. As one might imagine, supporters of Sumner’s standpoint were outraged, while those looking at it from Butler’s position found his move not only justified, but also minor in comparison to the transgression attributed to Sumner. Regardless, the attack had a chilling effect on discourse in the Senate. Sumner’s desk sat empty for three years as a reminder of the dangers of taking an unpopular stand – or in contrast, as an example of the importance of martyrdom.
The use of harsh and intimidating language is today, and perhaps has always been, a part of the American discourse. But, is it ever the most effective tool for advancing a reasoned opinion? Our own frustration with our inability to reach consensus with our peers can be expressed in a number of ways. But are angry, dismissive, profane or other postures productive? Should they be a part of our regular discourse?