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How the Giffords Tragedy Made Me Anti-Anti-Anti Political Hate Speech

Slate’s Jack Shafer has posted a characteristically irreverent piece on “The awesome stupidity of the calls to tamp down political speech in the wake of the Giffords shooting,” as the piece’s sub-title describes it. I haven’t personally called on anyone to tamp down their political speech since the Giffords tragedy. But had I been moved to comment, I would almost certainly have joined the ranks of the awesomely stupid. 

As it happens, I think Shafer’s anti-anti-hate speech position hinges on three analytical mistakes. Once you sort them out, his argument looks pretty un-compelling.

Mistake number one:

For as long as I've been alive, crosshairs and bull's-eyes have been an accepted part of the graphical lexicon when it comes to political debates. Such "inflammatory" words as targeting, attacking, destroying, blasting, crushing, burying, knee-capping, and others have similarly guided political thought and action. Not once have the use of these images or words tempted me or anybody else I know to kill. I've listened to, read—and even written!—vicious attacks on government without reaching for my gun. I've even gotten angry, for goodness' sake, without coming close to assassinating a politician or a judge.

But, of course, no one is suggesting that political hate speech incites normal, well-adjusted people like Shafer (okay, semi-well-adjusted—I’ve met the guy) to take up arms against public officials. The point is that a tiny fraction of the population isn’t so well-adjusted. That it is, in fact, teetering on the edge of maladjustment, and that particularly incendiary rhetoric may push such a person over the edge.

Now, you may or may not buy this. But that’s the group we’re talking about. Not you, me, and Jack Shafer. In fact, even Shafer concedes this point in the very next paragraph of his piece:

From what I can tell, I'm not an outlier. Only the tiniest handful of people—most of whom are already behind bars, in psychiatric institutions, or on psycho-meds—can be driven to kill by political whispers or shouts.

Am I missing something or does this observation undercut the paragraph that preceded it?

Mistake number two:

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."

Uh, no. 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. I would oppose a law preventing people from uttering words like “targeting” and “destroying.” I would love to see a norm governing political rhetoric in which prominent public figures refrain from the casual, massively hyperbolic use of highly incendiary language, so as not to give ideas to the people mentioned above.

In the same way, I wouldn’t support a law requiring people to help old ladies carry their groceries across busy intersections. But a world in which such a norm exists strikes me as a marginally better place. 

Mistake number three:

Our spirited political discourse, complete with name-calling, vilification—and, yes, violent imagery—is a good thing. Better that angry people unload their fury in public than let it fester and turn septic in private.

But it’s not the prospective unloaders of fury that people like me are hoping will watch their rhetoric. If Jared Loughner could have blown off enough steam fulminating against the Fed to skip his attack on a congresswoman, her staff, and several bystanders, I’d be all for it. (Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to have helped in this case.) The people I’d like to see tamp down their rhetoric are the insincerely angry public figures (say, the Republican candidate seeking Tea Party support, or the typical Fox News anchor) who rile up the angry (and, occasionally, unhinged) for cynical political reasons or crass commercial ones.

Of course, we don’t know yet whether it was some table-pounding pol or TV personality that pushed Loughner beyond his breaking point, or whether he would have melted down in similarly destructive fashion had he spent his life in a monastery. But, as Shafer concedes, there are almost certainly some people who fall into the first category. If public figures can save a few lives by reining in their most outrageously hyperbolic rhetoric, that doesn’t seem like too much to ask. It seems irresponsible not to.

An analogy: Suppose you were running for president of your local PTA chapter, which entailed pleading your case before 100 fellow PTA members alongside your rival for the post, a longtime neighbor and respected pharmacist. Suppose you got to go first, and that you knew someone in the audience was both armed and suffered from paranoid delusions. Whether or not it should be against the law for you to refer repeatedly to your rival as a jack-booted thug bent on confiscating private property, we can all agree that it’s probably not a great idea. Certainly no one would argue that it was a responsible line of attack.

The people urging the tamp-down Shafer finds so oppressive are simply applying this norm to national politics. What’s so awesomely stupid about that?

Update: One other analytical mistake to point out, which is kind of implicit in my argument but worth saying straight-out: Shafer conveniently conflates the sort of metaphors that are a routine and accepted part of daily discourse--words like "attacking" and "destroying," which few are suggesting are problematic (certainly I wouldn't)--with the kind of inciteful, eliminationist rhetoric people like me would like to see less of. Shafer is arguing against a straw man when he argues against a clamp-down on the first kind of language.