The Consequences of Free Speech

I had the right to remain silent, but not the ability. – Ron White

My entire career has been spent working in words. I would take to the streets in protest to defend the right of free speech. This is because I believe words to be powerful beyond measure.

Saturday a madman armed himself. At this writing, he is confirmed to have killed a child and a federal judge at a supermarket in Arizona, while wounding several others. He did so at a constituent meeting of Rep. Gabrielle Gifford. Almost immediately, the Facebook, blog and Twitter social media world focused in on Sarah Palin.

Palin Tweet

Early reports indicated she was killed. It was later learned she was still alive.

This might seem an odd leap until you see a graphic from SarahPAC from the past election cycle.

Why yes those are rifle crosshairs with 20 Members of the US House listed, including shooting victim Rep. Giffords.

Giffords’ opponent in the close race used imagery of machine guns and held shooting events during the campaign.

from DailyKos.com

from DailyKos.com

Almost as suddenly as blame was placed at Sarah Palin’s feet, her supporters and others were quick to begin to shame those who made what is quite frankly not that big a leap: Blaming the maker of ads with violent imagery about a politician after said politician was shot at a political event.

I have no idea what motivated this man to commit such a horrific crime. We may never know what drove him to this madness. From the very little we have seen of his youtube channel, he seems to be a severely disturbed person.

What I am livid about today are the people who act as if Sarah Palin and Candidate Jesse Kelly have been somehow unfairly brought into this discussion. These two laughed off concerns that their violent speech was inappropriate. They raised and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars using words and phrases like: “hit list,” “Take aim,” & “Don’t retreat; Reload.” They helped create the very atmosphere of rage they act so horrified by.

Let me clear: I am not blaming them for the death of innocent people.

Their consequences are to have their words and motives questioned. They were not lone crackpots who spoke out of turn. They were at various times the official representatives of the Republican Party. Their words have weight. Had they run a campaign without this rhetoric, no credible person would have brought them up today. They said what they said, and now they have to live the fallout.

The consequences for the GOP are for the rest of us to ask, “Where were you?” Did you laugh this off too? Did you try to stop their shameful speech? Did you speak to the people about such carelessness in their rhetoric? Or did you just cash the checks? You pushed this rhetorical snowball down the hill. Why are you surprised you got caught up in it?

Here’s the kick in the pants: I believe they had the right to say everything they did. I believe it was disgusting, but not illegal. I don’t think it should be illegal. My Communication Law professor taught me, and I believe strongly: The cure for bad speech is more speech, not less. So I think people with power and a microphone should use it carefully. I implore those with money to spend to spread messages would do so with careful consideration.

One of the things I pray for… is people with power will get good sense, and that people with good sense will get power… and that the rest of us will be blessed with the patience and the strength to survive the people like you in the meantime. – Julia Sugarbaker

My deepest prayer tonight and every night: Dear God, Save us from ourselves.

Post Script: Do I think Democrats are blameless and have never said horrible things? Of course not. But today is the GOP’s turn to get a stern talking-to from me. Another day, I’ll scream at Democrats, and yet another day, I’ll holler about why we can’t get common sense gun control in this country.

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22 Comments

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22 responses to “The Consequences of Free Speech

  1. Um, YES. Well said.

  2. Pam C. Pruett

    While I don’t necessarily agree with everything you’ve said today,
    That’s why this is YOUR blog….free speech.
    My heart and prayers go out to the families of those in today’s shooting.
    I respect your views and thank you for sharing the things you do.

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  4. rebecca

    Amen! Words do have the power (positively and negatively) to influence, motivate, enthuse, enrage and manipulate people. People, particularly those with influence, should weigh their words carefully. Good post.

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  6. Chris

    You do a very good job of shining the spotlight on the impact that words can have. I share few of the same views that you do when it comes to politics, but I whole heartily agree with you in that people of prominence MUST choose the tone of their speech wisely since there are so many nut cases (no pun here) that are looking for any excuse to take out their rage. Good job.

  7. I could not have said it more eloquently myself! Well done!

  8. Long Live Free Speech which gives me the right to say, yes to gun control. How far down have we gone when going to a constituent gathering will now be in fear. Great post-thank you.

  9. Please allow me to be the first commenter to totally disagree with you.

    I say this without contempt or malice. If your entire career has truly been spent working with words, you should doubtless understand metaphor.

    Let me present the pronouncements with which I disagree the most:
    “These two laughed off concerns that their violent speech was inappropriate. They raised and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars using words and phrases like: “hit list,” “Take aim,” & “Don’t retreat; Reload.”

    You are wrong to label any of Palin’s speech or PAC imagery “violent,” as that is to misunderstand the meaning of that word. Her speech is not injurious, forceful or destructive. Her images do not depict or capture images of harm, force, or destruction.

    The Jesse Kelly images you reference are not violent or suggestive of violence either. A picture of a machine gun is not a “violent image.” An invitation to a shooting event is even less so. It’s obvious why he portrayed himself as he did. It is obvious why Palin uses NRA shtick. If it isn’t to you than I certainly can’t help you.

    But I’m not trying to split hairs here. You disapprove of an atmosphere created by what you perceive to be a broadly “violent” kind of political rhetoric. The only problem is that language is more than words (and that you’ve made an accidental reversal).

    I guess you miss that thought processes are fundamentally metaphorical, and so our culture and language operate on unstated metaphors like ELECTIONS ARE WAR, and ARGUMENT IS WAR. If you’re beginning to roll your eyes, please allow me the time to better explain with some common examples of the pervasiveness of the war metaphors in our political discourse ( taken in part from Lakoff and Johnson’s famous work “Metaphors We Live By” http://theliterarylink.com/metaphors.html):
    “Positions” can be “indefensible.”
    My “opponent” “attacked” every “weak point” in my argument.
    His criticisms were “right on target.”
    I “demolished” his argument.
    And, of course, we WIN and LOSE elections. There are “battleground” states. “Campaigns,” electoral “strategies” and “war rooms.” Am I making the point a little better? It may seem trivial, but the “Elections are War” metaphor completely controls our way of thinking about the concept of elections and politics (While writing this I recall Jackson and “to the ‘victor’ go ‘the spoils.'”).

    Electoral politics and arguments are, to quote MWLB “partially structured, understood, performed, and talked about in terms of WAR. The concept is metaphorically structured, the activity is metaphorically structured, and, consequently, the language is metaphorically structured.”

    “’Hit lists,’ ‘take aim,’ ‘don’t retreat’ and ‘reload,'” then, are not examples of “shameful” or “irresponsible” behavior. They are nothing less than the ordinary way of talking about or having these arguments.

    The conventional ways of talking about elections presuppose a metaphor of which we are hardly conscious. The metaphors are not merely in the words we use–they ARE our very concept of the debate. This “violent” language you’re criticizing is not “poetic, fanciful, or rhetorical.” It is quite literal. We talk about politics this way because we conceive of it this way.

    The Rhetoric itself is not violent. The words are not violent. The metaphor isn’t even violent. The metaphor mixes our understanding of one concept, elections, with another concept: war. That’s it. The rest, I’m sorry to say, is your politics.

    • I appreciate your opinion. Obviously, my politics are much more liberal than Palin or Kelly.
      Certainly, the war metaphor is one used often in politics and debate. I contend these two took that metaphor to a different place. They were not talking of war in a strategic sense: positions, weak points, opponents, attacked.
      They went for the tactical: guns. Guns are by definition violent. They are designed to kill. Hit lists are not war metaphors, they are the intimidation device used by gangs and thugs. I believe the war metaphor is not what is shameful, but the personalization of that metaphor that makes it violent and gives it no place in civilized debate.
      Again, I do not believe they caused this tragedy. I am criticizing the falsely naive shock that they could throw rocks in water and nothing would splash on them.

    • That there are people in this world who think machine guns aren’t violent is very, very scary to me.

  10. Darcy

    We as a society are very fortunate to have so many rights in what we are allowed to say and do. But one thing that seems to be missing at times is the acceptance that there are still consequences for those words and actions. Yes, an American citizen you have the right to free speech, but then you must accept the consequences for the words you choose to use.
    This was very well written!

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  12. David

    +1 to CRWilson’s comment. Great stuff.

    KJC, for your “Another day, I’ll scream at Democrats” day:

    From our CIC, no less:
    http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2008/06/14/obama-if-they-bring-a-knife-to-the-fight-we-bring-a-gun/

    http://www.examiner.com/sarah-palin-in-national/new-hampshire-democrat-makes-palin-death-wish

    Daily Kos, Markos Moulitas, who is now publicly blaming Palin for the shooting, wrote these words (which he has now scrubbed from his site!):
    “Who to primary? Well, I’d argue that we can narrow the *target list* by looking at those Democrats who sold out the Constitution last week. I’ve bolded members of the Blue Dogs for added emphasis.”
    and
    “Not all of these people will get or even deserve primaries, but this vote certainly puts a *bulls eye* on their district.”
    and
    “Gabrielle Giffords is dead to me”
    http://twitpic.com/3o7s5c

    As far as gun control, I live in England where there are very strict gun control laws, as there are in Europe in general (which I have no problem with, not having a strong opinion on gun control). And yet there are still incidents of mass shootings that happen because *there will always be dangerous, insane criminals*:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10214661

    And to conclude with a sane voice of reason, Rachel Maddow

    “There is nothing to be gained from speculating on the motives and affiliations of AZ shooter w/o facts”

    • David, you lose credibility when you can’t even get basic facts straight.

      The Daily Kos piece you reference was not written by Markos. On the Daily Kos site, users are able to register an account and become “diarists.” They can then write posts and publish them on the site. It’s almost like an extended forum or bulletin board. The post that includes that (admittedly stupid) language was written by one of those thousands of diarists, and was likewise scrubbed by that person. Markos had nothing personally to do with it.

      So to compare the post of a random commenter to the frequent, on-the-record statements of the major mouthpieces and titular heads of a political movement and party is disingenuous at best.

      As the saying goes, you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.

      • David

        Yes, Markos has been 100% innocent in this. Like hell. This is the same guy who said “Screw them” when some Iraqis tortured and burned engineering contractors (whom he called “mercenaries”) and then dragged them through the streets. And then scrubbed his post the next day.

        Whether or not Markos said it himself, it was on his blog, and if he had some objection to it at the time could have taken it down. He certainly did when one of his diarists wrote a post insisting that Sarah Palin was not Trig’s mother.

        And what about our President using gun language? Or saying “punish your enemies, get in their faces”? Or those on the left who have made statements calling for Bush or Palin’s death?

        KJC’s point in this seems to be: “OK, so Palin isn’t directly responsible for the shooting, but she shouldn’t moan when she catches flack about it, because she uses awful rhetoric.”

        My opinion is that this is grossly unfair to Palin, because 1) the shooter probably hates Palin’s politics 2) the shooter’s obsesssion with Giffords began in 2007 – before the rise of Palin and the tea party, but importantly 3) “awful rhetoric” is in the eye of the beholder. But if KJC wants to go down this route, why single out the right? Why *start* with a post blaming Sarah Palin, why join in the twitter-storm blaming Palin *before any of the facts were out*? There are *plenty* of examples of this from the left, and the shooter himself was a leftist!

        Note the crosshairs:

        My favourite. Note the bill he shoots(!) is one I wholeheartedly support: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xIJORBRpOPM

        As far as getting facts straight, the cross hairs image was never pulled http://is.gd/kokfD and it shouldn’t be, because it has nothing to do with this event.

        When 9/11 happened, when the Ft Hood massacre happened, there were widespread calls of restraint: Do not blame all of Islam. In this case, lefty bloggers, some Dem politicians and others *immediately* cut loose blaming conservative politics, the tea party and Sarah Palin. It was literally within minutes.

        And what has it accomplished? Has the left in the past two days made the political discourse more civil? Has innocent Markos’ statement that Sarah Palin “has blood on her hands” encouraged bipartisanship? I think it has done the exact *opposite* of that – further divided left and right and increased distrust.

        Kerri, what am I to think as a person who admires Sarah Palin? Am I complicit in the mass murder in your book because we disagree politically, because Sarah Palin is one of my political heroes (and has been long before McCain chose her)? Because that’s how I feel, and it’s the reason I usually don’t wade into discussions like this. I end up stressed out and feeling insulted. And like you said yesterday on FB – is anyone really going to change his or her mind? If you believe that, then why write a public blog post like you did and link it to your personal FB account? Despite this, I remain a huge fan. Can I be president of your fan club as a Palin supporter?

      • David, I’m not terribly sure you have good taste in women to admire: Sarah Palin and me. (that was a joke)
        Seriously, my friends come from all political persuasions. It’s why I like them.
        I have not said Sarah Palin has blood on her hands. Nor do I think she (or you) do. I do not think she caused this.
        I do not believe conservatives are bad. The conservatives I know are thoughtful, rational people who simply approach the world from a different place than I do. I also believe there is a small section of people, who happen to be quite loud, who call themselves conservatives but really aren’t. Quite frankly, I cannot understand what they want except to be angry and hurl insults and accusations. That some of their vitriol came back on them is not terribly mature, but predictable.
        Again, my point: all speech has consequences. Her consequences are to be linked to this tragedy rhetorically. I’m sorry if her supporters don’t like that, but it’s the way the world works.

  13. DISCLAIMER: I believe Sarah Palin is an idiot.

    @CRWilson, well said. However, I don’t believe the average american, (much less the average Sarah Palin supporter, (much less Sarah Palin herself)), has such a granular grasp on language, metaphors, and rhetoric.

    You said, “A picture of a machine gun is not a “violent image.” An invitation to a shooting event is even less so.”

    I encourage you to do a Google image search for “violent image” and see how many guns, bullets, cross-hairs, etc show up.

    When you say things like “Someone should stop this person”, “take Aim”, etc, use imagery that the general population deems violent, and spread that over a large enough set of people, someone is going to take your metaphor for a literal statement.

    You said it was wrong to label her speech or PAC imagery as violent. I disagree, because it has become undeniably clear that it was perceived by many people to be violent. Maybe it wasn’t intended to be violent, but intent and perception are two completely different things.

    I think, as do many others, that the language and imagery used were in poor taste.

    I encourage her and her supporters to continue to exercise their freedom of speech. Also, I encourage those outraged by how big of an idiot she is to point it out at every opportunity.

    P.S.

    The “cross-hairs” site was pulled down within a few hours of the shooting. I wonder why?

  14. Why can’t we all just get along? I think your Julia Sugarbaker quote pretty much sums up my sentiments. As well as Thomas Friedman’s recent commentary in New York times over the wiki-leaks scandal,http://nyti.ms/etd3ko I for one, am fed up with all of the senseless fighting going on in politics. Friedman is right, we are too busy fighting with each other to be a threat to China dominating the world economy or solve any pressing problems. I have to admit that I never voted for Clinton, but I had the opportunity to hear him speak in Hot Springs a few years ago. In his speech he talked about all the conflict in the world, and the recent study on the human genome that proves we are all 99.9% the same, instead of concentrating on all the things that matter most to all of us, it seems to be human nature to be obsessed with our minute differences. I’ll say it again, “Can’t we all just get along?” To your point about free speech I agree, but I think that the majority of people think disagreements on an issue always have to be confrontational. Disagreements are great, problems are solved when two parties intelligently discuss them and work through conflict, it doesn’t have to get so ugly and counter-productive.

    (wow, it’s not often I get on my soap box) Thanks for such an inspiring post.