Dumb quote of the day: missing the point just to be a knee-jerk contrarian edition

>> Monday, January 10, 2011

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."

-Jack Shafer, "In Defense of Inflamed Rhetoric"
Slate, January 9th, 2010 2011

I read Slate. Actually, that's not wholly accurate in today's fancy-pants Internet age: I have Slate piped to my RSS reader (I use Brief), and I read the stuff that looks interesting, particularly Dahlia Lithwick's stuff (I just have this mad crush on her--I think she's just one of the best law blog/court beat writers out there).

And yeah, I'll read Jack Shaffer's stuff because he's a decent writer and sometimes amusing or even insightful; he's also, along with William Saletan, an example of why I stopped reading Slate for quite a long while and now only screen it through the RSS feed and only visit the site's actual front page when I'm horribly, horribly bored and have already visited everything else that occurred to me to visit. At its worst, Slate is essentially the online magazine of center-left trolling, prone to posting inflammatory ledes over articles that appear to be written solely for the sake of contrariness and the pageviews saying "nuh-uh" loudly enough will bring, questioning the conventional wisdom just to do it, regardless of whether the conventional wisdom is right or wrong.

Shaffer isn't a dumb guy (though the quote above is a dumb quote from a dumb article), but he's a knee-jerk libertarian contrarian to such a boringly predictable degree, I could write his pieces for him. When I saw the above-linked article in my RSS feed, I went and read it knowing exactly what it would say, and frankly I was predictably disappointed that it said exactly what I knew it would, no surprises whatsoever. And I wouldn't be bothering with a response except a good friend of mine mentioned it approvingly, so here we are.

A lot of people, as you may know, have responded to the tragic murder of six people (including a nine-year-old girl and a Federal judge) during an assassination attempt upon a United States Congresswoman in Arizona with attacks on some of the violent rhetoric infecting American politics over the past two years. There have been calls for secession, for "Second Amendment solutions," for "watering the tree of liberty" (a reference to a bloody-minded Thomas Jefferson quote from a much different era), etc., and these haven't just been coming from fringe wingnuts and wackos, such comments have been coming from "serious" politicians. One of the targets of much of the anger and grief over the attempt on Rep. Giffords' life has been Sarah Palin, a former Governor of Alaska who has frequently (because she lacks the imagination or mental agility to vary her comments very much) invoked firearms and hunting metaphors and who published a map of political "targets," including Rep. Giffords, designated by crosshairs--either symbolic gunsights or surveyors' marks, depending on your credulity--on a map.

Palin shouldn't be blamed for what happened Saturday. There is no evidence at this time that the alleged shooter was directly influenced by Palin's comments, or the comments of any other right wing (or, for that matter, left wing) figure. On the other hand, Palin's comments have undeniably been in poor taste, and it's not the least bit unreasonable to suggest that perhaps the comments she and others have made have helped produce a climate where acts of violence are less unthinkable, even to crazy people listening to the voices in their head. For that matter, it seems hard to doubt that the rhetoric directed at Giffords and others has had consequences such as a break-in at the Congresswoman's offices last year.

And here is where Jack Shaffer comes in. Shaffer particularly directs his ire at the Sheriff of Pima County, who was one of the people suggesting the political rhetoric had gotten out of hand when he gave a press conference in the midst of his office's investigation of six homicides and fourteen related attempted homicides/assaults. One might, of course, suggest that even if Sheriff Dupnik is out-of-line or simply wrong about the cause and effect of potentially enticing words and bloody result, he deserves a little more sympathy at the moment than Shaffer's, "Hey, Dupnik, if you've got spare time on your hands, go write somebody a ticket," a remark that knocked Shaffer down several notches in my esteem--it's one thing to be a knee-jerk contrarian always at odds with the conventional wisdom even when the conventional wisdom is onto something, and another to be douchey about it. We expect law enforcement officials like Dupnik to take time out of criminal investigations like the Giffords investigation to talk to people like Shaffer's colleagues in the active press; hey, I don't necessarily like that, myself--I hate to get personal, but as a criminal defense attorney, I wish cops wouldn't say bupkis about an ongoing investigation until after indictments are handed down, but it is what it is, First Amendment, Fourth Estate, public's right to know, yada, yada, yada. Point being, if you're going to expect Dupnik to take time from his busy schedule investigating a fucking bloodbath involving fellow public officials who he may very well know personally you might at least be a little bit respectful in your disagreements with him.

Anyway, Shaffer goes from his issues with Dupnik to someplace far astray, chasing strawmen, and here we come to the dumb quote that launches this blog post. I have yet to see a single commentator saying that violent rhetoric ought to be "policed," which is Shaffer's absurd conclusion. What critics of the violent rhetoric have been saying is that people ought to think about the possible consequences of what they're saying and that the leaders of organized politics have a personal responsibility to discourage irresponsible language from their rank-and-file. Neither of these propositions are unreasonable, neither proposition constitutes any kind of call for censorship, and indeed both propositions are inherent in the Enlightenment ideals of freedom of speech and the press that produced the First Amendment.

The First Amendment has never been a license to be irresponsible in your speech. Never. Indeed, some forms of irresponsible speech are not protected as a matter of law. Libel and slander have never been protected speech. "Fighting words" have never been protected speech. Words that constitute treason or sedition are not protected. Words that incite panic or riot--the famous "You can't just shout 'fire' in a crowded movie theatre" doctrine--are not protected. It has to be said that when Shaffer talks about not trusting anybody to police speech, he's not merely missing the point of those calling for toned-down rhetoric (who are calling for self-policing), he's also very simply wrong as far as American law is concerned: he may not trust the courts or legislatures or newspapers to police speech, but those institutions have, in point of fact, been policing speech for two centuries because some speech simply doesn't qualify for protection, and part of the delicate art of interpreting the First Amendment over two-hundred-plus years has been determining what kinds of speech are protected in the first place.

But let's talk about self-policing and criticism, shall we? Part of the point of protecting speech in the first place, assuming that a particular sort of statement is protected speech at all, is precisely so it can be criticized. Sarah Palin may have a right to tell dissatisfied followers, "Don't retreat, reload!" and such statements may indeed be metaphorical. Are metaphorical, we'll allow: one doubts Palin has the imagination to contemplate any of her audience being crazy enough to mistake her symbolism for a literal call-to-arms. But part of her having that right is everybody else's right to point out how dangerous and stupid her comments are, and to strongly suggest she shouldn't make such statements. Note that nobody is necessarily even telling her to shut up, however much one might wish she would: telling someone to choose different words to make a point is hardly even silencing them, expecting someone to choose their words well is hardly stifling their freedom.

And if individuals or even society as a whole chooses to allow someone to go on saying stupid, dangerous and reckless things but replies in turn by shunning, shaming and criticizing that first speaker, well: that's actually how free speech is supposed to work. The whole idea is that there's a marketplace of ideas, to use one metaphor: and in a marketplace, some products fail, some are even recalled. Similarly, another fine metaphor for the necessity of free speech is that of "sunlight being the best disinfectant": bad ideas--bad words--are exposed to sun and air and wither and die; what is that sun and air if not society turning its collective judgment on toxic expression?

There is no contradiction or tension between saying that I will defend to the death the right of Sarah Palin to foam at the mouth and saying I will oppose to the death the acceptance or even tolerance of what she has to say.

Those who invented the idea of free speech never, ever intended it to be freedom from responsibility for that speech and its consequences. Indeed, in the case of the Founders who enshrined that right in the American Constitution, they were painfully aware that if the Revolution had gone for the British, they would have all been hanged for their speech and were apparently prepared for that. It's certainly hard to imagine Jefferson or Madison whimpering that they were misunderstood or merely spoke figuratively; these men accepted that speech was a powerful thing and their rhetoric affected the world around them, which is why they were thoughtful about their words in the first place.

Shaffer likes being a contrarian, likes, really, being a troll; no, really, I mean if you go back through some of his columns at Slate you can find articles he wrote where there is no explanation for what he says except his page needs the hits. What he's done this time, though, is perhaps more embarrassing, or ought to be: a defense of personal irresponsibility, a castigation of a truly free society. Rational people have never envisioned basic freedoms as a suicide pact nor called for the disembowelment of civilization from within. We are all responsible for the words we use and their effects on others, and are responsible for the world we create with those words. And it remains the responsibility of all of us to care about what people say and to answer wrongful words with righteous ones. This time Shaffer isn't merely wrong; he's morally wrong.

UPDATE, January 10th, 2011: And then, after I wrote that nobody was calling for "policing" of violent speech, Rep. Bob Brady (D-PA) has proposed actual censorship. As David Weigel notes at the link, Brady's proposed legislation is "half unenforceable and half redundant" and as Weigel also says, it doesn't look like it would stop someone like the suspect in custody, Jared Lee Loughner, based on what the public currently knows about Loughner; to the extent it could be a prior restraint of constitutionally-protected speech, it's also illegal.

Otherwise, I think my points still stand. Brady's on the wrong track because speech inciting violence against people is either already illegal or is protected by the First Amendment--but still subject, in that case, to condemnation and criticism. I just wanted to mention it lest someone arriving late or returning wanted to add, "Aha, but what about...."

And my thanks to people who appreciated this piece, by the way. Thank you.


LucyInDisguise Monday, January 10, 2011 at 10:11:00 AM EST  


More than anything else you write, this is why you are, and will remain, very near the top in my RSS feed.


Flack Monday, January 10, 2011 at 12:43:00 PM EST  

Just as an FYI, you've mucked up the year of the quotation. When I was browsing past in RSS, it seemed that you were pulling in a potentially applicable quote from last year with coincidental timing, as opposed to a quote from the day before, which have different contexts, etc., etal. Happy New Year from a long time lurker/reader!

Eric Monday, January 10, 2011 at 1:16:00 PM EST  

Thanks for the catch, Flack! That's the second time I've done that this year!

Nathan Monday, January 10, 2011 at 1:20:00 PM EST  

If I may quote the proprietor from the FaceBook thread that started him down this road:

"...one can certainly use vicious, hard, insulting rhetoric without engaging in the kind of language that has become the norm in the current environment. It is one thing to insult someone you disagree with and another to suggest there's a "Second Amendment solution" to your disagreement. I may not pull any punches in a disagreement, and I may get ugly and personal, but if I've ever advocated violence since outgrowing my juvenile years it was a reprehensible mistake on my part and I take it back."

If any of the big names being held to task said anything remotely like this, I'd take them at their word and develop a great deal more respect for them. Instead, we get disingenuous attempts to claim that "crosshairs" and "bullseyes" are "surveyors' symbols". The time to make that claim was back when they first appeared and were met with castigation.

Leanright,  Monday, January 10, 2011 at 1:42:00 PM EST  

All I know is that I will NEVER shop at "Target" again! That place is just asking for trouble!

Thanks Eric, good piece. I do think that too many people read into Palin's rhetoric for more than it really is. I think if you are going to take shots at public figures because of some political map on television, then you're probably the same type of person who would shoot the President to impress Jodi Foster.

This was a dumb kid, a dumb 22 year old kid with a liking for Mein Kampf and The Communist Manifesto. He instilled fear for a day, and pain for years to come. I feel that he did this on his own. He doesn't seem to fit the bill of a Palin follower. More like the losers back at Columbine High School.

Steve Buchheit Monday, January 10, 2011 at 1:56:00 PM EST  

Leanright, Targeé? Why, what have hey done.

I actually can see using the "target" symbol. After all, a target can be used for bullets, arrows, slings, darts, marketing statements, those fuzzy velcro darts or even the magnetic ones, bean bags, on and on ad nauseum. However, cross-hairs have a specific connotation to targeting a weapon for the destruction of the targeted.

It's sort of comparing a mouse to a bull. Sure, both are mammals, both eat grass, but I'd rather face a mouse in an open pasture than a bull.

Eric, you and I must have been on the same wavelength this morning.

Leanright,  Monday, January 10, 2011 at 4:18:00 PM EST  

Well Steve, I don't want to be hit by EITHER! Those little velcro things leave a nasty mark!

Seth Monday, January 10, 2011 at 4:42:00 PM EST  

Hey Eric,

Thanks for posting this. I often get sucked in by Shafer's ridiculous trolling -- now I'll be able to stroll on by.

Jim Wright Wednesday, January 12, 2011 at 12:29:00 AM EST  

Well said, Eric. Well said, including the update

Dean Gadda Wednesday, January 12, 2011 at 3:44:00 PM EST  

I don't know what an RSS Feed is but I am glad that I have foundyour blog. This was an excellent piece on Free Speech and the current stat of our national political dialogue. Thank you!

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