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Free Speech and Quasi-Eliminationist Rhetoric

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Jack Shafer’s column about speech in the wake of the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords conflates several different claims into a broad argument about free speech.   Some of these claims are sensible and some less so.   Let me try to untangle the knot:

  • I agree with Shafer that proposals (like Bob Brady‘s) to ban speech that falls short of a direct threat are a really bad idea.
  • Having said that, I think Shafer implicitly overstates the extent to which people are calling for the comments they’re criticizing to be banned — so far, this has been rare.    Sheriff Dubink’s comments, for example, say absolutely nothing about legally policing the speech he decries.    Even public officials are permitted to criticize speech they disagree with, and I don’t see what his comments have to do with “free speech.”    In addition, I don’t think that Dubink or most critics are arguing that there’s some direct causal effect between individual instances of hateful speech and an attempted assassination.    Loughner probably never even saw the Palin target thing — but that doesn’t make it beyond criticism or mean that the climate it reflects isn’t problematic.
  • Shafer argues that Dubnik assumes that “strident, anti-government political views can be easily categorized as vitriolic, bigoted, and prejudicial.”  First of all, he doesn’t actually say that all anti-government rhetoric is bigoted; he says that bigoted speech is bigoted, and he suggests that some forms of anti-government rhetoric is problematic.     I also don’t see what “vitriolic” has to do with anything.    Krugman is good on this, but the issue isn’t “civility,” or rhetoric that is merely caustic or nasty.    It’s about eliminationist rhetoric, which is a different thing than “uncivil” or merely “anti-government” rhetoric.
  • Yes, it’s true that there are a lot of marginal cases because of the extent to which military and other violent metaphors saturate political discourse.  This is one reason I think that trying to criminalize speech that falls short of a direct threat is a bad idea.  Still, it’s pretty silly to think that proposing “Second Amendment remedies” to government policies isn’t any different than talking about “fighting a political campaign.”    And free speech means that Sharron Angle’s legally protected words can be harshly criticized.

UPDATE: A commenter is right to recommend this Noam Scheiber piece, which is very good.

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  • LarsMacomb

    Scott,

    Noam Scheiber, as well, does a nice job with Shafer’s argument in his most recent post to TNR Online. (See http://www.tnr.com/blog/jonathan-chait/81155/how-the-giffords-tragedy-made-me-anti-anti-anti-political-hate-speech).

  • Anthony

    Eh. This is what slate does. I thought it was anotger example of their usual style…

  • Joe

    This probably gives the article more credit than it deserves. Shafer, like Saletan, repeatedly has these thinking out side of the stereotypical liberal box with an attitude articles (he had a few that bashed Bill Moyers for some failing to admit to some 1960s sins) that are like fingers on a chalkboard.

  • ploeg

    Meh. Wake me when we get actual racketeering, rather than the playacting racketeering that we get from Palin and her juvenile compatriots.

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  • kth

    Shafer’s thing is that he is ever affecting not to have a dog in the fight, but his dogs are actually in the center of the pit. He bristles at calls for the teabaggers to dial it down, not just on free speech grounds, but because he is sympathetic to their worldviedw.

  • timb

    This is soooo off-topic, I’m almost embarrassed to psot it, but….

    A quote from an AP store about the Arizona shooter

    “At an event roughly three years ago, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords took a question from Jared Loughner, the man accused of trying to assassinate her and killing six other people. According to two of his high school friends the question was essentially this: “What is government if words have no meaning?”
    Loughner was angry about her response — she read the question and didn’t have much to say.

    “He was like … ‘What do you think of these people who are working for the government and they can’t describe what they do?'” one friend told The Associated Press on Sunday. “He did not like government officials, how they spoke. Like they were just trying to cover up some conspiracy.”

    Both friends spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they wanted to avoid the publicity surrounding the case. To them, the question was classic Jared: confrontational, nonsensical and obsessed with how words create reality.”

    So, minus the shooting and random violence, how is that description any different than Jeff Goldtein? He too is nonsensical, confrontation and obsessed with “language.”

    In fact, had I read that a Congresswoman was wrestled to the ground by someone yelling something about Cory Haim and then bludgeoned with a 17,000 word blog post on the Left’s control of language in discussions of whether Scott Beauchamp was evil or just treasonous, then I clearly would have believed it to be him.

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  • I haven’t read more than the “kneecapping” blob from Shafer, so maybe there’s a reason why i haven’t seen a retort (or a question) to the effect that “kneecapping” is used in campaign “locker room” rahrah sessions, not in speeches to prospective voters (or to voters via media interviews).

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