Sticks and stones … but words …

There is a lot of exposition stimulated by the recent shooting about the propriety of rhetoric and comparing allegations with past events along with political posturing and matters of civility in debate. Shrinkwrapped provides a reference point in In Favor of Inflammatory Rhetoric quoting Freud: “The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization”

in a nation of over 300,000,000 people, attempting to arrange our political discourse in order to minimize the risk of a psychotically disturbed patient from acting on his delusions is a non sequitor. It was not our political rhetoric that inflamed this person but his psychotic thinking and his deteriorating mind.

What needs to be remembered is that when we use words as weapons, it does not cause action; it inhibits action: words replace action. The insult replaces the spear; it does not cause the spear to be thrown.

We might all wish that our political discourse become more refined and elevated, yet it can’t and won’t any time soon, and for that we should be grateful. Our political divide is based on the most significant differences in the ways in which we conceptualize our country and believe we can best promote the common good and maximize our freedoms. The vision of the Left is incompatible with the vision of the Right and there are times when compromise is simply not possible. If our language reflects our intensity and the importance of the issues under debate, that is as it should be; the alternative to yelling at one another is not a pleasant afternoon tea, with polite elocution and refined disagreement, but guns and street battles. So by all means, continue yelling, continue flinging invective; it remains far preferable to the alternatives.

There is a court case that is relevant to this. It is about whether or not a man should be able to present himself falsely as a medaled combat veteran. In some jurisdictions, the courts have said it is OK because it is free speech. In others, courts have noted that it is a deceit intended to obtain benefit and, as such, should not be protected as free speech. While speech can be a substitute for more physically harmful weapons, there are limits which is why there are slander and libel laws. What is happening now pushes the boundaries of such law and the responsibilities that go with free speech. Matters of civility require intellectual integrity. What we are seeing right now is rhetorical spear chunking without any regards as to the quality of the point on the spear. It becomes an issue of just how much of that should really be protected and how much is enough.

As Limbaugh posits: “What is hate speech?” He notes that the definition has little to do with hate by those who most commonly use hate speech as their spear but rather they mean ‘disagree with me.’ If there was a more objective and agreed upon definition of hate speech, then, perhaps, something could be done about it. But if it is used strictly as a rhetorical weapon, it remains simply a substitute for an even less appropriate expression of views. As Shrinkwrapped noted, we should be thankful for small favors and hope we can keep things there as the many historical examples where even that restraint was lost illustrate.

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