MEDIA MATTERS: Tucson Shooting Opens Debate About Debate

LARRY BURRISS, Guest Columnist

Last weekend’s shooting in Tucson, Ariz., has prompted well-deserved calls for more civility in public discourse.

But we need to be careful that civility does not lead to a lessening of the discourse itself.

After all, any heated debate can still be civil.

This debate about debate seems particularly relevant since this past weekend also marked the 235th anniversary of the publication of one of the most significant, some would say inflammatory, pieces of writing in America – “Common Sense,” by Thomas Paine.

Published in 1776 just seven months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “Common Sense” was a politically astute and well-timed tract that promoted civil society and the equality of all individuals over the power of the state.

It urged people to use the strength of the masses, and it challenged the foundations of British rule in the colonies.

“Common Sense” was seditious not only in its call for revolt, but also in the urgency with which it appealed to readers’ emotions.

Paine had not only sensed, but also defined his readers’ views, strengthened their beliefs, touched their hearts, changed their minds, and convinced them that they must speak and act.

Paine’s pamphlet was the most important political document of the early phase of the Revolution, and few in the new nation did not hear of or read its arguments.

Supporters viewed it as vital reading and fodder in the battle to end oppression.

Opponents called it treasonous and labeled Paine much worse.

Paine was thus one of the most influential political philosophers and writers in our nation’s history, a sower of the seeds of the genuine American Revolution.

Though faded somewhat in historical prominence, remembered only, if at all, for classic lines like “These are the times that try men’s souls,” Paine was the predecessor to today’s political columnists and commentators, even those who sow vitriol and hatred.

His writings incited, bolstered and encouraged political activism in the cause of freedom, democracy and republicanism.

His words rang out on paper in the same powerful, yet plain manner that the speeches of men like Patrick Henry sounded in the ears of the common man.

As the foremost writer of his day, it is perhaps useful to remember that Paine used the power of the press to promote revolution; a revolution that, hopefully, did not end back in the 1700s, but is still going forward today.