You don’t need censorship to moderate speech

Not even a week, and already the opportunity for discussion is devolving into talking past one another. Some people—mostly lefties—suggest that (1) speech—inflammatory or not—has, or at least should have, consequences, and the speaker should be held accountable for their part in those consequences; and (2) therefore, it would be a good idea if certain people—mostly conservatives—moderate their speech, maybe rely less on violent metaphors.

Nobody [that I have seen] is advocating censorship. Nobody is advocating legal or government enforcement of this[1]. Nobody is advocating a central authority that gets to decide what is allowed and what is verboten.

And yet I see a prominent essay in Slate, which seems to be getting wide exposure, talking about how ridiculous legal/governmental enforcement of polite political speech would be. He goes on to ask who we should entrust with that authority, saying—rightly—that this is a highly-subjective area, and that one person’s “inflammatory hate speech” is another person’s “legitimate accusation” (or words to that effect). He’s right.

And he has completely missed the point. Because he then goes on to point out that violent and military metaphors have been a part of political speech for quite some time, and yet very few people have actually been so much as punched, much less shot. Which is a valid point—most people know the difference between metaphor and reality, between rhetoric and directive. Or, at least, are too afraid of the consequences. But that’s not the point.

The point isn’t “people are beholden to every word they hear, and must act upon it”, the point is “why use violent language to discuss politics, and clashes of ideas in general, in the first place?” What is gained by applying the mental structures of violence or war to other activities—particularly ones where violence is undesirable, and the results are not necessarily zero-sum? If it is purely for the linguistic flourishes, surely giving them up is worth saving even just one life? Nobody’s suggesting that you can’t advocate any [non-violent] position—just do so with non-violent language.

And if the violence is, in fact, actually a core part of your message, then you can’t very well say that it’s just language, and there’s no possible harm in it, can you?

As for the strawman of choosing an enforcement authority: that’s not what we need. What we need is social pressure. It should be precisely a de-centralized authority—composed specifically of every one of us. It is the collective weight of public opinion, not laws, that should “tone down the rhetoric”. Either by pressuring the news organizations, who in turn pressure the politicians, or as led by the news organizations. It doesn’t require governmental authority to change public behavior or language. In most circumstances, one doesn’t use the word “nigger” any more. It just isn’t done. In fact, there’s a good chance that you flinched a little reading it just now—I know I cringed a little in writing it—and perhaps wondered why I didn’t just write “the n-word”. Which is exactly my point: nobody had to legislate that word out of use, no single authority decided it was no longer acceptable—you, collectively, decided it. And it has become ingrained; for most people in most contexts now, it is simply not said. Because a sufficiently-broad cross-section of society decided that it would not accept its use.

Similarly, if we, or at least a large enough chunk of “we”, simply don’t accept violent rhetoric in political speech, it will eventually become unacceptable. It will never be completely eliminated, but it might become marginalized. Tell politicians—especially those you otherwise agree with—that they’ve stepped over the line. Be insistent. Call them on it every time, and do so publicly and emphatically. Call the news outlets on it when they use such language, and call them out just as loudly when they repeat it—yes, including direct quotes and sound bites—when politicians say it. If politicians learn that using such language means their message doesn’t get repeated, or only gets repeated with strong editorial condemnations accompanying it, they’ll choose different language. Because a politician who is ignored has lost their authority. If, instead of stirring up supporters while offending opponents, all they get is shunning from potential supporters and opponents alike, they will change.

That is what those calling for the moderation of speech are calling for: not authoritarian censorship, but personal accountability and public shaming and social pressure. It has been sufficient to keep down so many good things over the course of history (women, minorities, dissension)—let’s use it to suppress something bad, for once.

[1] OK, it turns out that’s not quite true—some idiots in Congress are apparently suggesting that the solution is trying to police, in a formal, governmental sense, political speech. But none of the talking heads seem to be. And, keep in mind that these are the same idiots that couldn’t seem to sell the public on health care that would save them money and possibly improve care, and got thoroughly trounced in public opinion when their position was “we want to help 98% of the people, and there’s ample evidence that helping the other 2% doesn’t do you any good and they don’t need it” and the winners’ position was “we are very concerned about 2% of the people, and we assert, contrary to all evidence of the past 3 decades, that those 2% will in turn help the rest of you”. These people just aren’t masters of communication, so I don’t think we should be surprised when they make a boneheaded decision specifically about communication.

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