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Tilting at Windmills

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January 10, 2011

'BANNING LANGUAGE' IS NOT ON THE TABLE.... Saturday's massacre in Tucson renewed a larger discussion about excessive, overheated rhetoric in our political discourse, which strikes me as a good idea. Slate's Jack Shafer wrote a much-discussed piece over the weekend, making the opposite case.

Shafer's point was to offer a defense of "inflamed" rhetoric. The subhead of the piece wasn't subtle: he lamented "the awesome stupidity of the calls to tamp down political speech in the wake of the Giffords shooting."

The piece is worth reading, though I found it unpersuasive, and it included one point in particular that warrants a closer look.

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. As Jonathan Rauch wrote brilliantly in Harper's in 1995, "The vocabulary of hate is potentially as rich as your dictionary, and all you do by banning language used by cretins is to let them decide what the rest of us may say." Rauch added, "Trap the racists and anti-Semites, and you lay a trap for me too. Hunt for them with eradication in your mind, and you have brought dissent itself within your sights."

I'm fairly certain this concern is backwards. I've noted here and elsewhere many times that I'd like to see conservatives turn down the temperature on some of their more extreme rhetoric, but it's never occurred to me to call for legal restrictions on anyone's speech.

Indeed, I've lost count of how many pieces in recent years have taken note of rhetorical excesses in our discourse, but I honestly can't think of any prominent political voice that has recommended that speech be "policed."

Calls to "cool 'inflammatory' speech" are about societal pressure. They're about urging those in the discourse to be responsible, not out of fear of official or legal recourse, but because it's the right thing to do (for the democracy, for the social fabric, for public safety, etc.).

Perhaps the single most outrageous form of political speech I can think of in recent history was Sharron Angle's talk of "Second-Amendment remedies." All kinds of people said Angle's comments were disgusting, but did anyone suggest for a moment she shouldn't have been allowed to say it?

Shafer fears a slippery slope -- first we urge people to show restraint, and the next thing you know, the First Amendment is under attack. These fears seem wholly unnecessary -- the point is about unenforced societal expectations and basic political norms. Nothing more.

Noam Scheiber added, "A call to cool inflammatory speech can be just that -- a call to cool inflammatory speech. It is by no means interchangeable with a call to ban certain words. Shafer is missing the distinction between a rule or a law, on the one hand, and a norm."

Steve Benen 10:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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A friend of mine put it quite succinctly last weekend: what we need aren't 2nd Amendment solutions, we need 1st Amendment solutions. The proper response to hateful speech isn't some sort of law, it's more speech to counteract the hate.

-Z

Posted by: Zorro on January 10, 2011 at 11:03 AM | PERMALINK

Anyone who refuses to cool their inflammatory speech should be tarred and feathered.

My initial instinct was to go with a gun-related "joke," but I decided that would be in bad taste given the horrific events in Tucson. But see how easy that is? Just think or a sec and don't say insensitive things. But then I don't get paid for beng inflammatory, unlike certain people I could mention.

Posted by: ManOutOfTime on January 10, 2011 at 11:04 AM | PERMALINK

"A call to cool inflammatory speech can be just that -- a call to cool inflammatory speech."

EXACTLY! There will be people in the coming days that will decry 'hate speech' when you are pointing out LIES, when you are showing passion, etc. etc. but it is our job to point out that this is very different from 'crosshairs'...

Posted by: SYSPROG on January 10, 2011 at 11:07 AM | PERMALINK

Who's saying "ban" this kind of speach?

I haven't seen anything about it.

We're suggesting that people tone down violent and eliminationist rhetoric on their own, not by fiat.
Or, if they decide to use it, that the MSM notice it, and call that person/people out, and not come up with the old, "Well, that's just Sarah, being Sarah..." Or, whomever. 'Cause she certainly ain't the only one.

Posted by: c u n d gulag on January 10, 2011 at 11:07 AM | PERMALINK

I don't think banning hate speech is an infringement of my rights if it turns the heat down.

There's a population in this country that can't handle the heat.

Posted by: mikefromArlington on January 10, 2011 at 11:08 AM | PERMALINK

I've never had much respect for Shafer, and his piece is basically setting up an easy straw man to knock down. The call for cooling inflammatory speech is, after all, a call for people to restrain themselves. It's not even close to calling for a ban on any form of speech.

Posted by: Lifelong Dem on January 10, 2011 at 11:10 AM | PERMALINK

Those who have tried repeatedly to ban flag burning and want to stop others from building places of worship seem to be most worried about someone else banning their hate speech. Projection pure and simple, and not a bit of a surprise.

Posted by: the seal on January 10, 2011 at 11:10 AM | PERMALINK

Shafer is concern trolling on behalf of the false equivalency. Stripped down, the argument is that if we somehow shame extreme rhetoric, we've censored "important voices", like the tea party's. So, it's okay to use violent rhetoric but woe betide anyone who notices any connection between that and actual violence. Sorry, Jack, but I do notice, and I notice how the right gets to make its "cultural" arguments as if it were immunized from blatant hypocrisy. Either you think words do matter, or that values matter, or that human lives matter, or that the very process of democratic socieites matter, or you're just playing a sick, nihilistic game.

Posted by: walt on January 10, 2011 at 11:12 AM | PERMALINK

NOTE also, the right to yell inflammatory statements does not include yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. America is crowded and income inequality is increasing and we are in a recession. The atmosphere is tense and the Limbaughs and Palin's of the world do not help this situation.

Posted by: KurtRex1453 on January 10, 2011 at 11:17 AM | PERMALINK

Now the incivil blogosphere is shrilly trying to tamp down on open calls for political assassination and rebellion which is vital for our democracy.

Posted by: MSM on January 10, 2011 at 11:17 AM | PERMALINK

Concern troll alert.

And Zorro's friend on the first comment gets it exactly right.

Posted by: J+1 on January 10, 2011 at 11:22 AM | PERMALINK

I doubt Mr. Shafer is missing the distinction, he is just ignoring it.

Posted by: bloomingpol on January 10, 2011 at 11:23 AM | PERMALINK

I think the issue is about taking personal responsibility for the things you say, and to realize that the things you say influence other people's beliefs and actions.

It's more of a moral issue than a legislative one - it goes back to the old argument about freedom of speech vs. yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Just because you have the right to say or do something doesn't mean you should say or do it.

I think in the days ahead, we are going to see who our truly mature politicians are - those who recognize that words and self-restraint do matter, and those who simply shrug their shoulders, point the finger of blame elsewhere, make excuses, and keep hurling rhetorical firebombs.

Posted by: delNorte on January 10, 2011 at 11:23 AM | PERMALINK

There's a lot of straw manning going on. People like Bill Kristol want to talk about how unfair it is to blame Palin for Loughner's act. Like the opponents of political censorship he's right, but carefully beside the point that this would be an excellent time to talk about the wisdom of voluntarily reconsidering political exhortations to "reload" or consider "Second Amendment remedies" - or reconsidering one's willingness to support politicians who continue to issue them.

The usual voices of conformist contrarianism and general hackery unite to prevent useful conversation. What a surprise.

Posted by: drkrick on January 10, 2011 at 11:24 AM | PERMALINK

My question is the same one I had back when the MSM seemed to be seeking wish-fulfillment for an Obama assassination: what exactly do they want to accomplish?

I assume someone who believes in armed rebellion is a motivated voter, and there's a bit of "keyboard commando," where they want the "base" to feel voting Republican is as heroic and brave as fighting to the death - as well as intimidation for the other side. But I can't believe they actually want anyone to go through with it. Not because they don't want people shooting Dems, but because it would hurt them politically.

Posted by: Memekiller on January 10, 2011 at 11:27 AM | PERMALINK

There's a line between mere speech and active incitement, and much as I hate to admit it, to date, the high-profile kingmakers have been stopping two hairs short. I guess.

But you know what? The First Amendment also gives us the right to call the eliminationist hatemongers out on their poisonous spewings. Don't gag them; drown them out. Like what the veteran bikers do whenever the Westboro Baptist sickos show up at a funeral.

Posted by: BruceK on January 10, 2011 at 11:27 AM | PERMALINK

There do seem to be more people on the right who feel that something must be made illegal to make them resist it. Sort of like abortion -- plenty of people on all sides of the issue feel that reducing the need for it is a fine idea. However, there are some who seem to say that the only thing that can hold them back isn't their own decision or morality but a law against it.

Is there a term for being unable to control oneself by a moral code without the threat of punishment, jail or hell?

Posted by: Jen on January 10, 2011 at 11:27 AM | PERMALINK

What? It's good for business, so who cares? Coffin manufacturers, funeral directors, the whole funeral industry, shock/trauma centers, hospitals, long-term care personnel, not to mention the gun and bullet manufacturers. Why do you hate America so? Why are you trying to stymie American business in the midst of a recession? And we can stoke hate and fear and anger WHILE we deny any plausible connection to the crackpots who take us up on our subtle invitation to kill. Now we can say, "This is deplorable! We'll get the bottom the this. We will ascertain the facts! And we'll bring those responsible to justice." So we get to promote the violence, deny any connection to the actual violence, and look like the defenders and punishers of the perpetrators all at the same time. Next time a Dem wants to stand up to a Rebuplan or Tea bagger, or even run for office against one, s/he'll think twice. This is what we've secretly been hoping for. Intimidate the opposition with violent imagery and rhetoric that naturally leads to violence and death. And we get to accuse YOU of pall'in around with the terrorists!! Hahahahaha. We are so smart and you are so f'ing dumb.

Posted by: Underlying Republican Mindset on January 10, 2011 at 11:28 AM | PERMALINK

The right should be well prepared to censor their speech. They do it all the time in fear of Rush and Glenn Beck (or if they happen to slip up, they slither back and kiss their toes...).

Posted by: Alex on January 10, 2011 at 11:28 AM | PERMALINK

As I pointed out yesterday, Neal Horsley's Nurmberg Files never called on people to assassinate abortion doctors, he simply listed their names and addresses, dripping in blood, and crossed them off as they were executed.

Posted by: Memekiller on January 10, 2011 at 11:29 AM | PERMALINK

What we need is not a ban to any kind of speech (not that anyone is floating the idea of banning ANY kind of speech). What we need are consequences to our actions and that includes consequences if things we say get innocent people hurt. I mean, theoretically, we DO have consequences like that, otherwise, why aren't the people decrying that their freedoms of speech are being strangled not out demanding Charles Manson's parole?

The right has been saying for DECADES, and it was bad before but it's gotten worse these past 10 years, that Democrats are, by definition (*THEIR* definition) enemies of the state. They are not a political party that loves this country bu has different opinions on how it should be run (you know, the way the left is always expected to categorize the right lest they be branded as inflammatory) but a party that hates America, wants to give it to the Commies or the Taliban or the Chinese or whatever boogeyman works on any given day. Furthermore, the principles and goals of the Democratic party are so anti-American, you can't even negotiate in compromise or debate or anything that might indicate you're looking for solutions with them, because after all, if Dems are out to destroy the country, compromising with them means YOU'RE destroying the country, just to a lesser degree.

We came from 8 years where, after a Supreme Court verdict stopped the recount of votes in a Presidential election and thus determined the winner will of the people be damned (and the losing side was sneered at to "get over it"), a war decided to be waged by a President and NOT by Congress (unconstitutional), an Administration that double-speaked their way into finding torture okey and dokey, and a deficit that ballooned by more than double under that President but his loyal lickspittles only decided was important the nanosecond he was no longer in office. And to speak against it was to be labeled an enemy of the state in their eyes.

And then, for the past 2 years, the "My President, right or wrong (but he's right and you're a traitor for thinking he's wrong)" crowd has decided that our current leader isn't even an American citizen (because they heard it on Fox News and Rush), that the deficit is now the most important thing (because they heard it on Fox News and Rush), that health care reform that was championed by Republicans in the 1990s and socialism today (ditto), that Obama was responsible for TARP (guess) and that there's just something very very wrong going on, and it's only going to get worse if the Democrats are allowed to push forward any facet of their agenda (guess again).

And the Arizona incident isn't an isolated one, but the latest in a recent spate of events that has absolutely nothing to do with calls to reload and targets on maps and accusations of socialism or fascism or terrorism and if you think any of that was hate speech then you're a traitor who deserves to die.

Amidst this nonsense, this degree of animosity where one party looks upon the other with the white hot hate of parents trying to stare down a Blood on trial for murdering their daughter, there are now calls for BOTH sides to tone down their hated rhetoric. Especially the left. Because of that one time moveon.org had that Bush is Hitler ad they didn't really have and immediately took down when someone posted it on their site.

The fact that we haven't idiocracied our nation into oblivion is a testament to the fact that not everyone has lost their blessed minds. Those people may as well have targets on their backs, too.

Posted by: slappy magoo on January 10, 2011 at 11:30 AM | PERMALINK

I think Shafer's more spot-on than some would like to admit: if you think "inflammatory rhetoric" is the problem, and you have no porposal for stopping it... then it amounts to one, long, red whine. Defining "too far" is about setting limits, limits that are either efnorced in some way... or they are meaningless. And Shafer then backs into the point: you can't enforce the limits. So there we are.

I think there is speech that goes too far, I think we do identify it... and I think, with some social norms, we do, actually, police it. Beyond what we already do - ostracizing, calling out extremes, fighting falsehoods with fact - I don't think there's much else to be done. And that's why I tend to think that too many more days spent bemoaning the "tone of our discourse" will be a dead end discussion with few real results. And the underlying reality is: the stuff you don't agree with is probably going too far. The stuff you agree with... probably isn't.

Finally, there's a point to be reiterated: whatever the tone of "our discourse" this shooting was committed by a disturbed man for reasons that cannot be fully explained or understood, probably having a lot to do with mental illness that was not properly identified or treated. We can do some concrete and ultimately helpful things about identifying and treating mental illness. And that would probably help in the long run a lot more than trying to regulate our "discourse."

Posted by: weboy on January 10, 2011 at 11:30 AM | PERMALINK

KurtRex hits on a clear point of Constitutional law: free speech does not cover incitement to riot or violence. The question, of course, is where to draw the line. The classic example of shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater is classic precisely because it's so unambiguous. Most times, though, the line between free expression, even free expression of anger, and incitement is a fine one, indeed.

Do the former half-Governor's postings of a map w/targets over various Congressional districts, along with exhortations to her followers to "reload" count as incitement? It comes close, to be sure. Today, of course, she claims that these crosshairs were really just "surveyors sights." And, yes, if you believe that, please e-mail me about a deal on a bridge in New York. But does it cross a fine, subtle line, from political hyperbole to incitement to violence? Perhaps, in the mind of a clearly-disturbed individual, it did. But should all of our political discourse be formulated so as not to provoke violent responses from the disturbed? I rather suspect not.

As I said during the time of university speech codes during the early 1990s, if you muzzle a bigot, all you get is an angry bigot. If you were to muzzle the Palins, Limbaughs, and Becks of the world, the main thing you'd achieve would be to confirm their fantasies of persecution, which would be entirely counterproductive.

As a friend put it at this past Sunday's Drinking Coffee Liberally meeting, what we need aren't Sharrrrrrrrrrron Angle's 2nd Amendment solutions, what we need are 1st Amendment solutions. The proper response to hateful, even inciting, speech, isn't a muzzle; it's more speech in response.

-Z

Posted by: Zorro on January 10, 2011 at 11:32 AM | PERMALINK

@KurtRex1453

NOTE also, the right to yell inflammatory statements does not include yelling "fire" in a crowded theater.

What Justice Holmes wrote is that the right to free speech does not extend to falsely yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Apropos of the point being made here, this is an important distinction. (Obviously, you should yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater if the place really is on fire.)

Posted by: navamske on January 10, 2011 at 11:33 AM | PERMALINK

The Declaration of Independence is as fine an example of thoughtful, reasoned, restrainted political speech as I know. Jefferson could have written: "Grab your guns and target the King!" He did not. It is possible to disagree with policies and dislike a person without calling for their annihilation.

Posted by: jpeckjr on January 10, 2011 at 11:34 AM | PERMALINK

From Paul Krugman's column this morning "Climate of Hate" (in 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."

If things are to change, the root of the violent words and images in our politics must be addressed. Will merely shaming the haters make them stop? I think not. Aren't Rush, Beck, Palin & Co. simply bullies, compensating for fear with bluster and threats?

Let's begin to address the real, existential concerns people have - profound economic insecurity, loss of community and a feeling of helplessness to effectively respond (hopelessness leads to alienation and anger). When we do, the public's appetite for and vulnerability to hateful messages will dissipate.

Posted by: FC on January 10, 2011 at 11:36 AM | PERMALINK

hah. remember when all those nasty liberals were showing up at Bush events wearing dangerous T-shirts? Where were your liberal Thought Police then?

Posted by: rusty chainsaw on January 10, 2011 at 11:37 AM | PERMALINK

I think the way to do this is to concentrate on making violent rhetoric unprofitable. If we refuse to give our time and attention to those who spew it, and put HEAVY pressure on the mainstream media to stop sensationalizing/encouraging it, eventually (although probably not quickly) it will become less than profitable to support it. Capitalism at its finest...which means the Republicans should approve, right?

Hey, what can I say, I'm an optimist.

Posted by: Kathy on January 10, 2011 at 11:41 AM | PERMALINK

RC: nobody brought a gun to the Bush events of which you write, or shot the man. False equivalences help nobody.

-Z

Posted by: Zorro on January 10, 2011 at 11:43 AM | PERMALINK

Let's hear Schafer defend this from Palin (maybe you guys remember it)?

"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil."

This is the republican candidate for the vice presidency of the united states accusing the current president of the united states of wanting to put her downs syndrome baby in front of a "death panel" which would decide whether downs syndrome Trig Palin would be "worthy of health care".

Again, that's the mother of a downs syndrome baby, falsely accusing the POTUS of wanting to put specifically her own baby in front of a "death panel".

Posted by: Danny on January 10, 2011 at 11:48 AM | PERMALINK

Shafer is telling people they shouldn't object to inflammatory rhetoric. Therefore by his own logic he supports banning such acts of objection. Why does he hate the Constitution?

There. That wasn't even remotely difficult. Who's bullshit is up next?

Posted by: SpaceSquid on January 10, 2011 at 11:49 AM | PERMALINK

This is about culture, not laws. In particular, we could try to redevelop, then re-enforce, a media culture that doesn't get excited and blast "breaking news" when someone says something outrageous, which is the current norm. We need to create and apply a different response to it. I would equate it to those countries / cultures that combat youth drinking not with restrictive laws, but with a form of shaming that places you in the "loser" category if you drink too much. So, less hyperventilating repetition of provocative commentary, and more instant context -- telling us instead that, say, Sarah Palin's PR handlers are attempting to use incendiary language under her name to rouse anti-government zealots. Tough to get either roused or incensed by that sort of context...makes the business of political rage seem a lot more pathetic and unattractive, I think.

Posted by: Mark on January 10, 2011 at 11:50 AM | PERMALINK

I can see a self-imposed ban on inflammatory speech kicking in over the next few weeks.Where once it was considered a strong political statement to shout down your elected Rep. in a public forum,now it's just going to raise red flags and produce a queezy feeling among the public.

The days of angry white men openly carrying semi-automatic weapons to politcal rallies are over.

Posted by: Dublin on January 10, 2011 at 11:50 AM | PERMALINK

With growing respect for your ability to see clearly and write logically do I applaud this post...it makes me proud to consider myself one who adheres to those attempts to be a fair and informed liberal leaning thinker/voter. As one now considered elderly I am depressed and discouraged by the continuing elements of what far too many treat as a GAME to be won rather than an honest and ethical examination of facts, truth and accurate information that might lead us into the light! It's EVERYWHERE...

Posted by: Dancer on January 10, 2011 at 11:51 AM | PERMALINK

No one wants censorship. They want people to be outraged when the accepted inner circle of DC tries to insight assassinations.

We don't want to stamp out incendiary speech. We want to wake people out of their slumber and apathy towards daily Hitler comparisons and not-so-subtle calls for secession and rebellion.

Posted by: Memekiller on January 10, 2011 at 11:52 AM | PERMALINK

I've beeen reading a book, U.S. vs. Them by J. Peter Scoblic. It was a discussion of how the conservative view of our foreign policy has undermined our security over the last 50 years. I bring this book up because it clearly explains how conservative thinking reveals the deep fear disguised as uncompromising idealism has driven conservatives to have an "us vs them" philosophy that has come dangerously close to destroying the world thru nuclear war. Conservatives of this day live the "us vs. them" in all aspects of their lives. They firmly believe that "American exceptionlism" should lead the world-No questions asked. And isn't this what we have seen over the last 30 years especially. No room for talking or discussion of differing ideas, just "We will settle this with the barrel of a gun."

Posted by: Chris on January 10, 2011 at 11:57 AM | PERMALINK

Here is the mindset that Sara and many Repigs are trying to create...

"Obama and Dems, you gonna create 'death panels' are ya?! (I know it's true b/c Sara said so, so did FOX, so did Rush!), we'll... here's a "Death panel" for you!!!! See how YOU like it!" And,sadly, we all know the rest of the story. The fact that she and Sharon Angle and the like can deny any connection whatsoever is a testament to their guilt.

Posted by: In what respect, Charlie? on January 10, 2011 at 11:57 AM | PERMALINK

SpaceSquid said, "Shafer is telling people they shouldn't object to inflammatory rhetoric. Therefore by his own logic he supports banning such acts of objection. Why does he hate the Constitution?"

Dang it! You beat me to it. That's exactly what I wanted to say. Nobody is suggesting that we ban hate speech but let's also not ban somoeone's suggestion that hate speech may have been the most important factor in motivating the the young man to commit this atrocity. Why should anyone be banned from saying that?

Posted by: Vandal on January 10, 2011 at 12:05 PM | PERMALINK

Shafer was being lazy in not distinguishing between calls for civility and calls to ban uncivil speech. But there actually was a bill introduced by a congressman governing violent rhetoric:

http://www.slate.com/id/2280674/

Posted by: Daryl McCullough on January 10, 2011 at 12:06 PM | PERMALINK

hah. remember when all those nasty liberals were showing up at Bush events wearing dangerous T-shirts? Where were your liberal Thought Police then?

Ri-i-g-h-t. T-shirts, and licence plates, too. There is a wee bit of wimpiness around here, don't you think? The right gets to censor speech, T-shirts, licence plates, etc at will, while the left can't even censor guns at their events, much less speech.

The President needs to appoint a Special Prosecutor.

Posted by: Bob M on January 10, 2011 at 12:06 PM | PERMALINK

@Zorro: False equivalences help nobody.

Are you kidding? False equivalences must be a tremendous help to Republicans, otherwise they wouldn't use them so darn much.

Posted by: Gregory on January 10, 2011 at 12:10 PM | PERMALINK

Shafer is afflicted with Sister Souljah confusion -- the inability to distinquish between what people legally can say and what they should say.

Using gun sights to target opponents, talking about 'reloading', telling people that if they don't win at the polls that they should shoot people (2cd amendment remedies) and sponsoring M16 live shoots to emphasize the importance of 'taking out' one's opponent, is irresponsible and should not be done. To suggest that this become discourse that is shunned by reasonable citizens is not to outlaw it.

Sarah Palin, Sharon Angle and others who use this kind of imagery should be shunned and criticized for it. That is kind of what the first amendment is for.

The right to say things doesn't make saying those things right.

Posted by: Artemesia on January 10, 2011 at 12:14 PM | PERMALINK

@ Vandal

Ah, don't worry. There'll be another bout of hideous Conservative illogic along any minute now. Say what you want about the American Right, but they never let the rational mind get bored.

Posted by: SpaceSquid on January 10, 2011 at 12:17 PM | PERMALINK

As we know words extract visual and emotional responses.

I, for one, am not suggesting laws to mitigate speech but that words, used the way Frank Luntz does, to frame images in ones mind, which politicians and some media outlets mimic, are used as a form of subliminal coercion. Lawyers arent allowed to coerce witnesses why should politicians engage is this method of coercion?

One psychiatrist lamented that one out of every twelve Americans cannot separate reality from rhetoric [as may be the case with Loughner].

Posted by: Kill Bill on January 10, 2011 at 12:19 PM | PERMALINK

Americans have lost the clear distinction between private and public. There are all sorts of words--racial, sexual epithets, swear words--that we agree express attitudes that should be left unspoken and unwritten in public discourse. In the private sphere, people can use them all they want. We hear them used in public in comedy routines when comedians make us laugh by using them to pepper up their routines. But we agree that it is inappropriate to use them in public speeches, talk radio, newspaper reports or even on the blogosphere.

The same thing applies to the "Hey, look at how tough we are. I hate you; I want you to die a violent death; look how big my guns are, heh-heh!" language that the Right has embraced. They think they are patriots, heroes, good guys, and they think it is okay to beat their children and disdain empathy. They fancy that the attitudes they are expressing are kind of amusing and entertaining. But expressing these attitudes is ugly and degrades the public sphere. One can't substitute force for reason and expect good things to result.

Now it is astonishing to watch them defend their public viciousness now as free speech. Maybe it just feels so good to be a perpetrator that they can't stop themselves.

Posted by: PTate in MN on January 10, 2011 at 12:21 PM | PERMALINK

There are laws against assault, incitement to violence, advocating violence against elected officials, and advocating overthrow of the government. It's time we started enforcing them, and hauling people into court. People like Palin, that Arizona teabagger who held rallies where people could shoot at a photo of Rep. Giffords, and maybe even generic public ranters like Bill-O the Clown, Glen Beck and Limbaugh.

Sure, they may get off - but at the cost of big, big legal bills, lots of wasted time, and much public airing of their inflammatory rhetoric.

Bob M suggests a Special Prosecutor. It seems at least a blue ribbon panel is called for.

Posted by: zandru on January 10, 2011 at 12:25 PM | PERMALINK

BTW, any lawyers here know if there's any civil liability at stake here? In other words, if you've put personally threatening, incendiary language in the public domain...someone comes along and commits said act...is there any basis for a civil lawsuit for inciting murder? If a famous and influential politician publicly intimated that I should be shot, can I sue her if get shot? And can the families of any victims surrounding me also sue?

Posted by: Mark on January 10, 2011 at 12:28 PM | PERMALINK

"One psychiatrist lamented that one out of every twelve Americans cannot separate reality from rhetoric [as may be the case with Loughner]."

I would think that number would be closer to one out of every three - otherwise advertising wouldn't be so pervasive, especially political advertising.

Posted by: delNorte on January 10, 2011 at 12:29 PM | PERMALINK

Once upon a time a long time ago there were journalists in America who would ask politicians what exactly they mean by this that or the other euphemism.
The words matter. Putting all responsibility on the hearer to understand that what is meant is not what is being said is deceitful.

Posted by: thebewilderness on January 10, 2011 at 12:32 PM | PERMALINK

slappy magoo: Really smart post. Silly name though.

Posted by: emjayay on January 10, 2011 at 12:55 PM | PERMALINK

"Once upon a time a long time ago there were journalists in America"-thebewilderness

There still are a few- Bill Moyers, Amy Goodman, Thom Hartmann come to mind-but they have mighty small megaphones, compared to the He Said/She Said corporate shills that dominate the airwaves.

Posted by: DAY on January 10, 2011 at 12:56 PM | PERMALINK

There might be SOMEBODY calling for legal restrictions on violent political speech, and I'll even go so far as to postulate that there might still be some such person a week from now. If so, we won't need Shafer's help to reason with them.

Shafer is not an honest broker here. He's a Mickey Kaus-style contrarian, which is to say not even the kind that's occasionally bringing new ideas to the table. For a long time, I read what he wrote through gritted teeth, because he usually picks very interesting topics, and I figured it was just his overblown lordliness and "last honest hard-working journalist" schtick that was bothering me.

Then I realized how often he was describing his own ideas as controversial, surprising, unique, etc. Tune in next time to see what sacred cow I'll slaughter next! But the thing is, there's rarely anything so outlandish or outrageous about what he writes--just where he places the blame. Only I have the courage to defend free speech! When I realized that his endless "fake trend" stories (only I have the courage to cherry-pick bad journalism and subject it to criticism) were themselves a fake trend, I was done.

I'm not saying he's not entertaining or necessarily wrong on any given subject. But be very, very, very leery of any "threats" Jack Shafer is the only man courageous enough to warn you about.

Posted by: Matt on January 10, 2011 at 1:13 PM | PERMALINK

There might be SOMEBODY calling for legal restrictions on violent political speech, and I'll even go so far as to postulate that there might still be some such person a week from now. If so, we won't need Shafer's help to reason with them.

Shafer is not an honest broker here. He's a Mickey Kaus-style contrarian, which is to say not even the kind that's occasionally bringing new ideas to the table. For a long time, I read what he wrote through gritted teeth, because he usually picks very interesting topics, and I figured it was just his overblown lordliness and "last honest hard-working journalist" schtick that was bothering me.

Then I realized how often he was describing his own ideas as controversial, surprising, unique, etc. Tune in next time to see what sacred cow I'll slaughter next! But the thing is, there's rarely anything so outlandish or outrageous about what he writes--just where he places the blame. Only I have the courage to defend free speech! When I realized that his endless "fake trend" stories (only I have the courage to cherry-pick bad journalism and subject it to criticism) were themselves a fake trend, I was done.

I'm not saying he's not entertaining or necessarily wrong on any given subject. But be very, very, very leery of any "threats" Jack Shafer is the only man courageous enough to warn you about.

Posted by: Matt on January 10, 2011 at 1:17 PM | PERMALINK

Sorry, but have they no decency, have they no shame?

No, they don't because no one, including none of us, has held these creeps to a higher standard of discourse and debate. They yell over the top of everyone else, highly reminiscent of a chief brownshirt tactic. Fine, let them do that. But then turn public opinion against them by calling them out for being creeps and don't report verbatim what they have said. Recall Reagan's nasty, devastating, "There you go again"? Try it, you might like doing it--

If they persist in using this ugly imagery and rhetoric, in appealing to the paranoid with threats and 'you are threatened' blather, then let them suffer at least the consequences of having us turn our backs on them, and not repeating word for word things we've heard them say time and again, in fact endlessly. Is there 'news' in what they say? Then don't pay undue attention to it.

Finally, just note that this over the top nastiness is ALL THE REPUBLICANS HAVE GOING FOR THEM. It's not a question of free speech; since it is their sole resource for grabbing attention and votes, it should be treated strictly as such, and given no more credence or attention than any other campaign tactics.

Posted by: jjm on January 10, 2011 at 1:31 PM | PERMALINK

Part of the problem with this is the preferred method the US has for dealing with issues in the public space. Where other cultures simply apply social pressure to achieve their goals, the first - and sometimes only - response from a US citizen is "there oughta be a law." That the law often encourages behavior contrary to the stated purpose often gets conveniently forgotten.

Alcohol, for example, was perceived as a public ill, so it was banned (18th Amendment), and only reinstated (21st Amendment) when the social conditions accompanying Prohibition turned out worse than the failing we tried to prevent. Most cultures simply encouraged alternatives to drinking as a means to combat overconsumption and promote moderation (if not total abstinence): for the US the major step was a Constitutional amendment, and the results were nearly predictably tragic.

The US is far too conditioned to managing its public sphere by legislation and not social pressure for Shafer to be entirely wrong, but the impulse to legislate and endorse/condemn particular behaviors from the capital often does as much harm as good. Nobody may be calling seriously for legal constraints on public speech yet, but the drive to legislate morality to this extent is well-ingrained in the US psyche and the likelihood that someone will suggest it in this instance is high.

OT, but I read somewhere this morning some pundidiot insisting that the same people who think violence in movies and on TV is OK, but political speech advocating violence is not. I have no idea where this particular idea is originating, but I haven't heard anything of the kind. And judging from The Murdoch Machine's recent efforts violence in movies, on TV, in on Faux Nooze and other venues, and keeping the Reichwing busy with violent speech during the campaign season, the converse - that the ones OK with the violent rhetoric are also the ones OK with violence as entertainment - seems more true.

Posted by: boatboy_srq on January 10, 2011 at 1:34 PM | PERMALINK

there is no point in addressing Shafer's piece as if it were serious commentary.

it isn't.

it is just commerce.

Shafer realized that running a callous, tactless contrarian story with a shockingly contrarian headline would generate a huge number of comments and page views. It would stand out. It would generate heat -- and therefore advertising dollars.

It really is that simple.

Posted by: zeitgeist on January 10, 2011 at 1:48 PM | PERMALINK

It's a call to police one's own language, to maintain civility voluntarily. Amazing that some people feel threatened by being asked to take responsiblity that way.

Posted by: g on January 10, 2011 at 3:00 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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