Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sarah Palin and the Consequences of Free Speech

Sarah Palin has done it again, said something of such utter stupidity that the clocks start ticking backwards. Today she has posted a video accusing journalists and other people criticising her violent rhetoric of blood libel, a term most often used (according to above article) "to describe the false accusation that Jews murder Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals, in particular the baking of matzos for passover. The term, which is centuries old, referred to anti-Semitism and violent pogroms against Jews." Rep. Giffords, who most people are aware of, was shot a couple of days ago in what seems to be at least a partly politically motivated action and her condition is still critical, perhaps not so surprisingly as she took a bullet to her head.

I don't really want to discuss the details of the violent rhetoric of the US right, as there have been others who know more of the subject and can express it better among them Melissa McEwan at Shakesville. Suffice to say that the right wing in USA have been using, condoning and, some might even argue, encouraging violent rhetoric in the form of gun imagery when talking about their political opponents. While it has been fairly clear that this imagery has not been meant to really hurt someone, it is distasteful and horrible. What I really want to discuss is Palin's call for protection under free speech in the face of this horrible event.

Free speech is good. Free speech is great. A lot of productive discussion can come under free speech and democracy and the progress of society would be impossible without it. No person, or few persons, alone can take on the development of a country and its inhabitants. While more voices might sometimes be confusing, it is definitely a benefit for the greater good. That is not to say that rhetoric is not important. I have argued consistently, both here and on my Swedish language blog, that rhetoric is key to how policies are interpreted, implemented and constructed. After all, we all act within the references of what we know, and rhetoric shapes much of our perception of society, which it is also such an important thing to challenge normative rhetoric and the (inappropriate) use of it.

Under free speech, the notion is that you can say nearly whatever you want, as long as there is no direct hate crime or slandering of another person. Fierce opposition is common and encouraged among politicians, especially in today's media hyped society where the harshest words make the best newspaper heading. But with great freedom, comes great responsibility, to paraphrase Spider-Man's uncle. If you are allowed to say nearly whatever you want, whenever you want, wherever you want, you should also be prepared to take responsibility of the consequences. I am not saying here that Palin and her buddies are responsible for the horrible shooting against Rep. Giffords and the other people, but it can most certainly be argued that their violent rhetoric could have inspired the shooter. This is something that Palin should recognise and own up to. She needn't apologise for the shooting, because she did not hold the gun, but she should at least recognise the possibility that her rhetoric and her imagery have or could have contributed to political violence. If she uses violent rhetoric in politics, there is a possibility it could lead to political violence.

When violent rhetoric becomes the norm within certain political circles, politics will be associated with violence. From putting crosshairs over political candidates, to threatening that people will start picking up their guns if the political outcome is not in their favour, as Sharron Angle did, there is a hazy line to resorting to violent tactics. When violent imagery and euphemisms are used in such political contexts, it indirectly condones such behaviour and might even encourage it. The use of such rhetoric is nothing but irresponsible.

People are not accusing Sarah Palin, Sharron Angle or any of the other users of violent rhetoric, of having pulled the trigger and fired the gun at Rep. Giffords, they are calling for them to take responsibility for abusing words and imagery. Being a person in power, you have to be careful of what you say and how you say it, because people listen to you. That is the whole point of power, you can influence other people to do what you want them to do. If you start talking about picking up guns, or if you make political representatives targets on your website while in a power position, you cannot completely turn your back to the fact that people might act on it. The reason why this rhetoric was used in the first place was to make people passionate about politics, Ms. Angle says. Did it not cross your mind, then, that perhaps making people passionate about gun violence and politics in the same sentence was not such a great idea?

Enjoying the freedom of speech does not mean that you are automatically immune to all criticism, regardless of how harsh it might be - it means the opposite. Now people are using their freedom of speech to make Palin et. al. realise what it is that they did wrong, because in a democracy, violence and politics should not be associated with each other - not from the state against its citizens, nor from the citizens against its state.

1 comment:

  1. If Sarah Palin, Sharron Angle, Glen Beck, et al were Muslims, they would also be in jail. There is an on line petition at which calls for the Dept of Justice to indict Palin for incitement to violence. It has over 4,200 signatures.