Home > Commentary, Politics/Policy > Violent rhetoric and free speech

Violent rhetoric and free speech

Many threads of debate have been winding through my Twitter feed today in the aftermath of yesterday’s tragedy in Arizona.  One that I’ve been particularly tangling with concerns the role played by the media and political climate, specifically the venomous hostility that’s de rigueur on much of the right. George Packer sums up the argument against “the ugliness to which our politics has sunk” in the New Yorker.  Over in Slate, Jack Shafer dismisses the notion that political speech might motivate violent behavior, specifically calling out Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, whose remarks have been much pored over in today’s coverage.

It’s obviously pointless to speculate on what motivated Jared Loughner’s rampage, especially until trained professionals are able to assess his clearly irregular psychological state.  It seems reasonable to presume that he was not guided by any rational political philosophy. To me, the question of whether vitriolic rhetoric inspired Loughner in any way is at best the third-most pressing issue raised by the incident, far behind 1) Our need to expand access to decent mental health care, and 2) Our unwillingness to have a serious conversation about responsible firearms regulation.

Still, it’s worth considering (entirely apart from this incident) the impact of the undeniably scalding temperature of political discourse in the age of Glenn Beck, and what sort of response is warranted from those of us who are neither demagogues nor their stooges.  And what disturbs me most is how, anytime someone dares to criticize the histrionic lunacy of Beck or Palin or whomever, that criticism is immediately assailed as a threat to the very foundations of free speech.  Here’s Shafer:

“Any call to cool ‘inflammatory’ speech is a call to police all speech, and I can’t think of anybody in government, politics, business, or the press that I would trust with that power.”

This misses the point completely. Denouncing certain speech or a certain style of speech, asking people to voluntarily hold themselves to a different (I’ll refrain from saying “higher”) standard, is not the same thing as calling for government censorship.  It is the necessary and healthy response to the “public fury” Shafer describes, the responsibility that accompanies the right.

If free speech is to be worth a damn, it must be rooted in the faith that people, when confronted by “inflammatory” speech, will react in just this way – rejecting it and its practitioners utterly.  And not by calling for laws to be passed, or charges to be filed (which, incidentally, Sheriff Dupnik did not do, and which I cannot recall anyone in a position of political or media influence doing*).  Instead, we reject the speech of the deranged with speech of our own – we tell them to shut their fucking traps.

The beauty of free speech, as Shafer notes, isn’t just that it allows good ideas to enter the conversation. It’s that it allows bad ideas to enter as well, and be roundly rebuffed.  It allows the shitheads to self-identify, as it were, so that the vast majority of sensible people can refute, rebut, and castigate them.  It falls on us to swat down the bilious ramblings of the hateful and ignorant  – civilly, loudly, unremittingly.  If we don’t, if we just shrug and say, “it’s their right,” then even the most odious vituperation receives a tacit credibility it doesn’t deserve.

Free speech thrives because it allows for an intellectual meritocracy – the “marketplace of ideas,” as Oliver Wendell Holmes termed it.  That meritocracy only comes to pass if worthless ideas are called out as such.  Condemnation from the body politic isn’t censorship.  Condemnation is what makes censorship unnecessary.


*Update, 6:40 p.m. CST – I see via @JamesUrbaniak that Rep. Bob Brady (D-PA) plans to introduce exactly this sort of reactionary legislation. It’s not likely this will go anywhere whatsoever, but hey, at least it will invite plenty of scorn and mockery. Kudos, Congressman.

  1. January 9, 2011 at 10:19 pm

    well said and i appreciate your post and the window of opportunity identified by you; for the power and impact of speech, and where the expression or omission of, becomes a work of art. to Tea Party Express Chairman Amy Kremer this is not identified as spirited dialog… and …very well said, inherit the wind.'But using military and criminal “cool” phrases for killing “Taking out” “recall with bullets” “in the cross-hairs” has just yet again moved from metaphoric to literal. I don’t know of anybody on the Left side of the fence doing that with regularity, or even at all. But lots of talk-radio, Fox Noise, and TeaParty backers and candidates do, all the time.'http://twitpic.com/3oj7fmconservatives: so you who are making excuses, using every defense mechanism in the book for not accepting a very obvious and direct responsibility in this tragic occurrence… you know who you are. you can not joke, use poetic license, think of it as spirited dialog…(what dark spirit are you referring too here?) regarding putting cross hairs on an individual, and then when it happens, even begin to think you had nothing to do with this? wow. there is a well known, proven consciousness field that we all tap into. there is a power to suggestion. jesse kelly was a tea party candidate, he was wrong, tea party backing of him/this is wrong, tea party excuses are wrong… so as bill hicks says, stop with your internal dialog, but bill the consti… and shut the fk up! you are wrong, admit it, get over it, shut the fk up… you are wrong. apologize! this is a direct result of palins map, comments, and other references of violence directed towards a group; and in the case of gifford an individual. this is a direct result of the people who are easily identified conservative public figures.they better/have to get accountable, for any healing to take place. period.!there are people involved here who have to get right with their god. most definably. if it was anybody else's cross hair map besides sarah palin, they would be held on suspicion (without warrant) for investigation of murder and assault, with evidence, as well as jesse kelly, as well as a possible conspiracy… everyone knows what an idiot palin is…so i doubt there will be charges? no genuine political candidate with a brain puts a map like that on facebook or where ever…seriously? stop with your excuses and see your responsibility. we all do.

  2. January 9, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    With all of the attention that "vitriolic" speech is getting, what's most striking to me is the hyperbolic nature of political/pundent rhetoric. "President Obama is the most liberal president ever!" Um, no. But people who don't have the historical knowledge (or interest) may feel that they do need to resort to violence or armed revolution because clearly we are on our way to a dystopian future, rather than an expression of a legitimate political ideology.Obviously, vitriolic rhetoric is more dangerous than hyperbole, but hyperbole forms the argument's basis that violence is the logical response.

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