Perhaps it’s because 1/1/11 and New Year’s resolution setting is still relatively fresh. Maybe it’s the strange wide-eyed process of coming back to computer world after a great holiday spent largely outside and disconnected from the net, and seeing how so many words are archived online, including on all the social media sites that I use. Mostly it’s because of the reading I’ve been doing around the context of the horrific shooting of Senator Griffiths, her staff and attendees at her first Congress on the Corner gathering in Arizona, USA. All of a sudden I’m more conscious of the power of the words we use.

Hours after the Arizona shooting, Sarah Palin and other political leaders in the US scurried to remove posts from the internet that, in the light of the assassination attempt, were worthy of profound criticism. These included a target map with Senator Griffiths’ voting area under gun cross hairs, and a Tweet from Sarah Palin encouraging renewed protest against the Health Care Reform Bill that read “Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!” Her Republican colleague Jesse Kelly in the State election had also run a campaign event offering citizens the chance to “Shoot a Fully Automatic M16″ to “Get on Target” and “Remove Gabrielle Giffords”.

More widely, our politics and the media have become increasingly filled with imagery of armed revolution and war. The recent reaction to Wikileaks’ outing of US cables included calls in different parts of the world for Julian Assange’s assassination and treatment as a terrorist (presumably with Guantanamo-style interrogation and no legal rights). Republican members have urged constituents to be “armed and dangerous”, and media commentators make jokes about shooting government officials or beheading a journalist at The Washington Post. “These sorts of things, I think, invite the kind of toxic rhetoric that can lead unstable people to believe this is an acceptable response,” said Senator Durbin after the attacks.

It would be easy to blame individuals who made inflammatory statements for the violent actions of some. In reality, those who used words of violence were neither planning to enact violence or directly wishing for others to carry out violent acts. But words have power, and those who believe that violence is an answer to things they don’t agree with can all too easily be influenced by hate speech.

Amidst the immediate reactions, some media commentary have explained the shootings as the act of just one mentally unstable individual. Alongside these, I’ve been thankful for some great opinion pieces in The New York times that are reflecting on the wider cultural context of the shootings, and how important it is that in a climate of ‘free speech’ we don’t allow hate speech to reign.

Argument isn’t wrong. Dissenting views or different political opinions aren’t wrong. What I don’t agree with is the use of violent language that suggests that those who hold different views not only shouldn’t hold those views, but plain shouldn’t be around. I think we all have a responsibility to chose our words wisely, particularly when we’re sharing ideas in the public realm, or if we occupy positions of leadership or influence (is that everyone who talks with others?).

“The problem here doesn’t lie with the activists like most of those who populate the Tea Parties, ordinary citizens who are doing what citizens are supposed to do — engaging in a conversation about the direction of the country. Rather, the problem would seem to rest with the political leaders who pander to the margins of the margins, employing whatever words seem likely to win them contributions or TV time, with little regard for the consequences.” ~ Matt Bai, The New York Times

“There’s room in a democracy for people who ridicule and denounce those who disagree with them; there isn’t any place for eliminationist rhetoric, for suggestions that those on the other side of a debate must be removed from that debate by whatever means necessary.” ~ Paul Krugman, The New York Times

While one man is likely to go on trial for the killings and woundings at the Congress on the Corner in Arizona, I hope this tragedy isn’t buried as only one’s person isolated responsibility. Because a culture of violence isn’t confined to only those who commit violent acts. Equally, the responsibility for non-violence is with everyone.

“So will the Arizona massacre make our discourse less toxic? It’s really up to G.O.P. leaders. Will they accept the reality of what’s happening to America, and take a stand against eliminationist rhetoric? Or will they try to dismiss the massacre as the mere act of a deranged individual, and go on as before? ~ Paul Krugman, The New York Times

Let’s hope for a new era of responsibility in our leaders and media commentators, and amongst people having conversations, blogging and tweeting everywhere. (Reform of gun ownership might be helpful too?)

As people look for cause and prevention, I’m hoping that leaders won’t be shut off from those they represent by excessive security requirements that prevent them from interacting with their constituents. I’m sure for a Senator who was just beginning her first Congress on the Corner would want more conversations about the things that matter on street corners everywhere.

So what does all this mean for my New Years resolutions?

This year I’m going to pay more attention to the words I use, particularly language that blames or contrasts goodies and badies, or ‘good things’ vs ‘bad things’. I suspect that there’s a similarity between violent political language and alarmist language around climate change and other sustainability challenges, and I’m keen to move away from scare tactics that inspire fear in anything I write or share online.

With some of my significant earlier years spent designing campaigns, and such an influential culture of alarmism and hyperbole (and probably too much time spent online – another New Year’s resolution!) let’s see how I go!