Note from Mo: Last week, after Steve Scalise was shot, Dan and I were discussing whether the Left’s overheated rhetoric is responsible in some measure for the shooting. This is a difficult issue, made more so by the Left’s insistence that the Right is responsible for bad things that happen to Democrats or the Left, like the Oklahoma City bombing and the Giffords shooting. We decided to write this piece on each side of the issue as a way of learning how to think about it. As part of the exercise, we each deliberately took the most extreme position on our side, so these views might not completely align with our real, more nuanced views.
Divisive, hateful rhetoric is a tool used by the Left to maintain the mob they need to win elections. A little hyperbole goes a long way, but eventually, that's not enough. The mob develops a tolerance to exaggeration. So the rhetoric that was once enough just doesn't cut it anymore. It's part of American History, and it's not unique to any ideology.
We are in an age when political alignments are deeply internalized, and for too many, it's become their sole identity. Not only is the world ending, but the weight of it is on your shoulders. In a time of 24 -hour cable news and relentless social media, the absorption rate of propaganda is higher than ever before, and rage is a powerful drug.
There's a reason Republicans are viewed as evil by the cultural left, and it's not because of their agenda, which, by the way, is increasingly left leaning. Much of the disdain for Republicans (and conservatives) is derived from the rhetoric of the cultural left and the media. People of considerable influence in the realms of journalism and celebrity really hate Republicans and conservatives, and they do not hesitate to smear them in any way possible. I know I don't have to explain because you've seen it and experienced it. So now an unhinged leftist lunatic became the fulfillment of leftist propaganda. What does the left do? Well, they can't make up their minds. First, they find a way to blame Republicans and gun laws, and some even slap each other on the back and share jokes. Then there's a call for unity and some photo ops. Then there's talk of toning down political rhetoric, but not that of the Democrats. Republicans are so despised, they have to take at least partial blame when a GOP Congressman gets shot by a leftist. Even the Democrats open to discussing their rhetoric problem can't do it fully. “I tell you what, we’ll split it with you,” they said, and insist Trump has to take some blame for a Bernie bro shooting at Republicans.
The faux unity proved too much for Democrats, who had already started to tiptoe into the “He deserved it” narrative. It's too much to hide their overall glee at a GOP congressman getting shot. They shame the man, his policies, and his voting record, and call him a bigot, a racist, and a homophobe.
And to protect themselves here comes the all too familiar “lone wolf fringe” narrative. Where have I seen this play out before? And what's an assassination attempt without identity politics? Hey, wasn't this guy a devout Bernie Sanders acolyte? Never mind. In fact, it's best if we stop talking about that all together. The real problem is Republicans being “murderers” for continuing the big government healthcare program the liberals started.
Now anyone can step back and not point this out, but it doesn't matter because they are still going to blame you. It seems Republicans are required to be silent on the liberal rhetoric and pretend the left hasn't hammered home the idea that Republicans are the apocalypse, and imagine propaganda calling Republicans “Nazis” isn't affecting public perception. We know it is. We experience it. Suggestions of violence, metaphorical or not, find their way into the psyches of Americans, and after witnessing cities on fire after the election, citizens who vote Republican have to wonder when this spills into their private lives, if it hasn't already. It doesn't absolve the shooter of responsibility, but the cultural drive shouldn't be ignored. We shouldn't be polite about it, and we shouldn't have to qualify it.
Of course rhetoric influences behavior. You’d be a fool not to believe that. We have an entire industry—advertising—dedicated to influencing behavior with words. In fact, I’ll accept, for the sake of argument, that James Hodgkinson, the man who shot Steve Scalise and others, was influenced in some way by heated Left-Wing rhetoric. Still, there are good reasons why we shouldn’t generally blame Left-Wing speakers for Hodgkinson’s act.
With few exceptions, we assign criminal responsibility only to those who act, not to those who speak. This principle is embodied in the First Amendment. No, the First Amendment doesn’t literally apply here because we’re not talking about governmental actions, but the free speech principles animating the First Amendment extend far beyond it.
Free speech, as set forth in the First Amendment, is intended as a bulwark against government tyranny. We must be able to freely criticize the government and our officials without fear of being imprisoned. But free speech is more than that.
The freedom to say what you think is a fundamental human right. It’s a natural extension of the freedom to think, the freedom of mind, which is what defines each of us as an individual. Also, free speech allows the free exchange of ideas and knowledge. It allows people to air ideas, no matter how rancid, and to debate those ideas. It helps to clarify and sharpen thoughts and opinions. It allows for the free flow of information. It leads to the truth, even though it sometimes involves falsehoods.
Conversely, controlling speech is a means of controlling thought. It slows or shuts down the free flow of ideas and information, also making it more difficult to think and form opinions. George Orwell captured the most extreme implications of speech control in 1984: “In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”
Because of the importance of this fundamental freedom, we, with very few exceptions, place the legal responsibility on the listener alone to act responsibly and rationally in response to speech, as we also should outside the courtroom.
First, when we hold speakers responsible for the actions of the listeners, we help make a case for controlling speech. If the listener really injured someone because of what the speaker said, then maybe we should control what comes out of people’s mouths in order to prevent injury. We’ve already seen something like this in the gun control debate. Gun control advocates use practical observations about how much easier it is to kill multiple people with a gun to advocate for restrictions or even banning guns, which in turn undermines a fundamental Constitutional right put in place to protect against tyranny.
Second, where do we draw the line on which rhetoric is responsible and which isn’t? And who draws that line? If you’re pro-life and say abortion is murder, do you think you should be responsible for a man who bombs an abortion clinic? Should you be silenced for speaking plainly? If you fear someone will blame you, will you self-censor? Assigning blame for speech chills speech, in part, because the lines are so hard to draw and are drawn differently depending on the person, including the listener. People become afraid to speak for fear of being held responsible for someone else’s actions. It also creates diversions from the substance of an argument to whether the speech is acceptable. For the past 35-40 years, we on the Right have been fighting against the policing of speech through political correctness for these very reasons.
Third, and relatedly, it simply isn’t fair. Bad people do bad things and are motivated by more than just words that the speaker likely didn’t intend to drive these bad deeds. Do you really believe if you speak out against Radical Islam, you are to blame for the man who drove a van into the Muslims outside the London Mosque this week? You are not, just as the Left, despite some deeply absurd and obnoxious rhetoric, is not responsible for Hodgkinson pulling the trigger at that baseball field.
Finally, assigning responsibility to the speaker diffuses responsibility away from the listener who acted on the speech, and treats him as if he has no mind or agency. It is the same collective-guilt thinking that has been eroding our society for decades. We hold individuals responsible for their own actions and, in doing so, maintain a society mostly made up of responsible individuals. Once the blame is diffused, and individuals are treated as mere products of external influences, the freedom/individual responsibility model of our society is eventually destroyed. Again, the gun control debate is instructive. We on the Right do not blame guns or gun access for what individuals do with those guns. We blame the individual. We shouldn’t blame speech for actions, just as we shouldn’t blame guns for mass shootings. It diffuses individual responsibility, and it provides an excuse to control a vital Constitutional Right.
Simply put, we need to be less sensitive to raucous and even obnoxious and hateful speech, not more. We need to trust the “marketplace of ideas” to sort out the good speech from the bad and treat individuals as responsible agents of their own conduct.
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.