Speaker Boehner’s Sensitive/Cowardly Removal of Harmless/Violent Wording in Response to a Trumped-up/Genuine Problem

One of the characteristics of a true Ethics Train Wreck (or ETW for short) is that it eventually reaches the point where unethical and ethical responses to it are indistinguishable. The Tucson shooting ETW officially reached that point today, when Speaker of the House John Boehner apparently yielded to the complaint that referring to the health care reform law as “job killing” was inappropriate in light of Jared Loughner’s near-murder of Rep. Giffords along with killing or wounding 19 other victims.

In a post on his official blog, Boehner referred to the law as “job destroying” and “job crushing,” an apparent concession to critics like Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree, who argued that the House bill called the “Repeal the Job Killing Health Care Law Act” should be renamed something without “killing” in it, “for Gabby’s sake.” By doing so, the Speaker of the House gave credibility to an argument that…

  • Is rhetorically fatuous and silly, as there is no violence suggested or implied in the term “job killing,” since 1) jobs aren’t really “alive” and 2) everyone above the age of 4 knows that “kill” used in this way is purely metaphorical, with the word used as a synonym for “losing” or “eliminating.” There is nothing violent about it at all.
  • A non sequitur, as the use of “killing” or other vivid words in a political setting had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Giffords’s shooting, and thus the changing of such a word could not be reasonably or logically said to be for her “sake” in any way.
  • Is based on the false assumption, unconscionably advanced by many in the media, that political rhetoric and especially conservative or Republican rhetoric had some causal relationship to Loughner’s rampage, when every fact and expert opinion indicates the opposite.

It is absolutely wrong–irresponsible, misleading, and cowardly—and potentially harmful to free public discourse for Boehner to give in to this newly proposed expansion of political correctness….except

…if he believes, as he should believe, that Pingree’s complaint is ridiculous, why not follow the Second Niggardly Principle and make the cosmetic change? If there really are people who think Rep. Giffords benefits by replacing killing with destroying, crushing, obliterating, strangling, smothering, macerating, smashing, vaporizing, liquidating, defenestrating, or something else, why not end the idiotic debate and let them have their way—especially since the original name of the bill was dumb to begin with? And why not make this completely pointless and cost-free gesture, since declining civility is a real impediment to governing on Capitol Hill?

Here is why, if Boehner needs a counter argument: You don’t make the gesture because the issue of civility was unfairly, dishonestly and irresponsibly raised in connection with a deadly incident that had nothing to do with political rhetoric at all, for the explicit purpose of demonizing and even criminalizing the content of political speech from one side of the political spectrum. His act of moderating the original language, meaningless as that act is, will be viewed as a tacit admission that those accusing conservatives of setting off Loughner creating a “climate of hate” were correct, making the cynical and biased distortion of facts by the media a complete success. Pursue the objective of civility and respectful discourse in real and meaningful ways from now on, but not in any form illicitly and unfairly linked to Jared Lee Loughner.

Perfect: if Boehner does the right thing, it has negative effects. If he does the wrong thing, it sends the right message. And the right thing and the wrong thing are exactly the same.

Welcome to the Ethics Train Wreck, Mr. Speaker.

5 thoughts on “Speaker Boehner’s Sensitive/Cowardly Removal of Harmless/Violent Wording in Response to a Trumped-up/Genuine Problem

  1. I think changing the words will ultimately have been the right choice based on his duty to claim the most votes possible for the legislation. There are times and places to make a stand against childish behavior, but in this case, I’m not sure he would have been able to convince his colleagues otherwise. If he’s not going to gain anything by fighting the tantrum, then he should find the quickest route back to the job at hand.

    • I think this is right: the decision is almost certainly pragmatic rather than principled, a trade-off. It still is annoying. Just kills my weekend, as I’m suffering while I try to kill germs and kill this cold that won’t let go.

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