Freedom of (Angry) Expression

After the terrible shootings in Arizona, some folks rushed to use the spilled blood as fuel in their political machines. Some hurried to blame the right, especially Sarah Palin and her infamous map of “surveyor symbols.” Others leaped to place the blame on the left.

Among the more reasonable folks and experts the consensus arose that the shooter was motivated by neither the right nor the left. Rather, he seemed to have made his choice under the influence of his own troubled mental states. As such, the blame seems to rest (as it should) primarily on the person who pulled the trigger. This incident did, of course, raise legitimate concerns about various relevant issues such as whether or not more laws should be created in the hopes of preventing another incident like this one.

Some people do, of course, want to pass laws against  speech containing violent rhetoric and images that are suggestive of violence-at least when these are directed at politicians.  The hope is, naturally enough,  that such laws will help prevent future incidents.

Those who traffic in angry rhetoric were quick to angrily denounce such proposals as violating their right to free expression. While I am not in agreement with the angry rhetoric, I do agree that such laws would tend to violate that right. I also contend that such new laws are neither needed nor desirable.

One reason to not add new laws is the obvious fact that actual threats of violence are already against the law. As such, there does not seem to be a compelling need to add new laws to make illegal what is already illegal.

However, some of the suggestions involve laws that go beyond outlawing actual threats. The idea seems to be that new laws should cover vaguely threatening rhetoric and suggestive images.

While this might have some appeal, to expand the laws to restrict expression that might merely be seen as vaguely threatening or suggestive of violence (like cross hairs on a map) would seem to infringe too far into the freedom of expression without adequate justification. After all, restricting the freedom of expression requires justifying that restriction-typically on the basis of harm or potential harm. Something that merely seems threatening or suggestive does not seem to be harmful enough to warrant such a restriction.

These two points could be combined into something of a dilemma: if an act of expression is an actual threat, then it is already covered by existing laws and hence no new law is needed. If an act of expression cannot be classified as an actual threat, then it would seem to be protected by the freedom of expression and hence no new law is needed. Thus, there would seem to be no need for new laws in this area.

There is also the practical concern that laws vague enough to cover what is vaguely threatening or suggestive of violence could easily be misused by politicians against their opponents and critics. This would, as some have said, have a chilling effect on free speech.

In light of these reasons, it would seem that no new restrictions on expression should be made into laws. This, oddly enough, puts me in agreement with folks who want to continue to use angry and violent political rhetoric. However, I do disagree with them in a key way.

While I do agree that people should be free to spew hateful rhetoric that does not cross over into actual threats and incitements to violence, I also believe that people should tone down the violent rhetoric and the anger. At the very least, people should consider whether their anger is proportional to reality. Political discussion and the general good are not well served by vitriol. They are not aided by disproportionate anger. They are not enhanced by rage. While we do have disagreements, we should remember that we are not blood enemies and that we can discuss our differences in a rational way, free of allusions to violence. Before sputtering in rage, we should think of those people lying dead on the tar and temper our words. After all, their blood shows us the true fruits of hatred and rage.

My point is, of course, that there is an important distinction between what people should be allowed to express and what they should choose to express. To use an analogy, there should be no law that forbids spouses from referring to each other as “whore”, “sh@thead” and so on. However, spouses really should not use such language with each other. Likewise for the angry rhetoric-people have the right to use it, but they should really consider not doing so.

  1. Even though, i agree with the majority of your comments, my deep concern is how to deal with the troubling rhetoric of these days. Most of it is blatant propaganda,at the least with no factual base and its worst spiteful lies. We, as a country and a democracy, suffered enourmously. We can not get reliable information or evaluate different points of view. But most troubling to me is that the people responsable for this rhetoric behave and speak like mentally ill people spreading incoherent messages or non-sensical paranoia. Incredibly these people are part of the media and in some cases elected officials. So where is the line? How can we protect ourselves and protect our freedoms?

  2. Sorry, I forgot to add the notify of follow up messages service.

  3. It would be nice to have a law that requires any accusations to actually be proven. Much of the current political rhetoric is, to say the least, rather suggestive, and those who use such rhetoric know that what they say can in many cases not be grounded in actual facts. Isolated incidents are blown up to emerging threads, and whole groups are condemned because of what one person does.

    Alas, I’m afraid such laws would run aground in technical complications, if not be rejected by politicians who thrive by such tricks.

  4. It would be nice to have a law that requires any accusations to actually be proven. Much of the current political rhetoric is, to say the least, rather suggestive, and those who use such rhetoric know that what they say can in many cases not be grounded in actual facts. Isolated incidents are blown up to emerging threats, and whole groups are condemned because of what one person does.

    Alas, I’m afraid such laws would run aground in technical complications, if not be rejected by politicians who thrive by such tricks.

  5. I agree with what you wrote and you have painted both sides of the argument. As a Canadian watching the Obama speech on national TV, I was inspired by the Obama statements but I am aware of the turmoil that the U.S. is undergoing wrt to politicians gone haywire with rhetoric in a climate of extremely difficult economic times. If the politicians followed the advice of this article, then they should tone things down but they are politicians playing the ultimate spin game.

    Here is a different thread but on a similar theme. It is a far lighter situation relating to freedom of (politically correct) expression. The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has banned the Dire Straits song Money for Nothing. http://goo.gl/gdykR Have they heard of the Internet and the choice that the Internet offers? People will continue to choose what they want to hear. And artists will continue to do their art as freedom of expression allows them to. And radio stations defied and challenged the ban by playing the song as it was released in 1985. They went with “if someone complains and the CBSC orders the radio station to cease, then they will”.

  6. Dennis Sceviour

    The theme of censorship and propaganda is repeated in several articles. Is there nothing else to write about? A similar controversy perennially appears over Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” because it uses that f-word. It is interesting to note that Mark David Chapman had a copy of “Catcher in the Rye” when he shot John Lennon. The symbol of book-burning can in turn become a symbol for the misguided; that is, the book-burning publicity can be more damaging than any content in the book itself, although some might argue this does not necessarily follow. Whenever a senseless shooting tragedy occurs, people are quick to find something or someone to blame. Recently, Sarah Palin has been collecting blame for her “cross-hairs” politics. Sarah Palin’s problem is that she suffers from moose-in-mouth disease that affects people north of the 55th parallel-:), but she cannot be blamed for age-old political violence itself.

    Another example is the issue of censorship in movies. One anti-censorship article indicated the only murder in a movie-theater was during a performance of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” They suggested that violent media does not prompt someone to imitate violence. Media merely excites and provokes thought, something like philosophy. [I was unable to trace the reference for the Snow White example, but the recollection seems plausible.] Theatrical censorship boards in England and America differ on allowable content. British censors dislike violence, but are tolerant of sexual innuendo. American censorship boards are the opposite. So, the onus for a violent media censorship discussion probably rests with American ideals. American western movies are notorious for promoting Texas causal justice – Shoot him because he needs a shooting.

    Freedom of (angry) Expression reminds of the 1970’s Primal Scream Therapy which has now declined in popularity. Psychologists are still in dispute as to an approach for anger management, and the topic is still open for continuing research. However, even an in depth inquiry into the meaning of anger will not necessarily reveal many of the problems related to political violence. Many violent actions are simple cold-hearted deliberate actions. For example, Mark David Chapman wore a proud smile, and not an angry frown, when he shot John Lennon.

    “While I do agree that people should be free to spew hateful rhetoric…” At first appearance, this statement seems absurd, yet on closer examination, there is probably nothing wrong with people saying they like or hate a political ideology. The question remains over the incitement of violent behaviour with propaganda. So far in history, no one has yet put forth a satisfactory reasoning as how to prevent it. For some people, law and politics is merely to create excuses to shoot somebody and get away with it. The actual political debate is sometimes a mask for answering who is going to commit the violence, not addressing the question as to whether violence should be committed. Socrates addressed this problem in the Republic by simply accepting the situation, and then exploiting it. Socrates proposed to Adeimantus an educational system based on censorship and propaganda. This philosophy was contested in the 20th century without any evidence of increase in hatred.

    The original intent of Freedom of Speech was to allow people to speak out against political party policies. It was never intended to permit lies, to yell “fire” in a theater, or to take personal attacks against anyone’s character. Obviously, there are those people who differ, and believe the opposite. It is important to preserve the honor and dignity of the individual. Unlike political laws, the Code of Honour is found globally, whether Japan, Bolivia or the French legion (Code of Honour is another topic in itself).

    Therefore, is it wrong to call someone a #-head or a @-word, but is it okay to accuse the right or left wing groups of impropriety? If the answer were yes, this might help to solve some problems with freedom of speech, diplomacy and libel, but does nothing to resolve the problem of political violence. This is easy to say, easy to criticize and easy to misinterpret. For example, it might be incorrectly considered an agreement that religious criticism is permissible.

    Of importance is that political rhetoric via the net is now global and cannot be stopped with national laws. The concept of “Free Radio” is an old one, and has had a minor resurgence in interest since the Wikileaks controversy. Therefore, local lawmakers are merely wasting time writing laws that would prevent abuse. Here, philosophy can truly shine in that can give people a sense of conduct rather than obedience to uselessness.

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