Of Symbols and Meaning: Part Two

BY Gwen Ifill  January 14, 2011 at 12:30 PM EST

Last week in this space, I mused about how quick we can be to over interpret events and ascribe tenuous meaning to actions that so often defy explanation.

The American flag flies at half-staffLess than 48 hours after I posted that column, 19 people were gunned down in a Tucson parking lot — six died — and suddenly we were sucked into a situation in which symbolism seems all too real.

Guns. Mental illness. Overheated political speech. Personal security. Everyone flocked to their favorite theory.

We can be a nation of extremes, especially when it comes to fraught debate. Usually we manage to set aside the vitriol in times of national shock and grief. That didn’t happen after the Tucson shootings.

Perhaps our debates move too fast now, making it nearly impossible to decide what we really think before the accusations begin to fly. In such an overheated rhetorical environment, symbols morph into reality, meaning becomes subjective, and it seems that absolutely everyone stops listening to each other.

That’s never good. Trapped within partisan echo chambers, politicians and pundits regularly lose sight of what ordinary shades-of-gray Americans are thinking about. Who had the most compelling story this week? Sarah Palin or Christina Taylor Green? Daniel Hernandez or the angry gun control and second amendment advocates?

The answer became crystal clear Wednesday night when President Obama cruised right past the accusations of “blood libel” that Palin had leveled earlier in the day, and denunciations of her cross-hairs analogy earlier in the week, to appeal to Americans to “expand our moral imaginations.”

It’s an interesting concept that does not define what morality should be, but certainly seems to remind us that we can be better than this.

I’ve covered politics and Washington long enough to realize that cease-fires seldom last very long. But something about the tragedy in Tucson — and the Hollywood-quality survival tale of the valiant Congresswoman and astronaut’s wife — might just calm things down a bit for awhile.

Then perhaps we can see symbols and meanings for what they are, instead of what our politics often dictates they should be.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the Washington Week website, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.