Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tucson, Arizona; free speech and incitement during the "War On Terror"

A lot of talk has been said about the effect that the toxic atmosphere of political partisanship in the USA of recent times can have on the psychology of the mentally unbalanced.
The left blame the right for the violent rhetoric of the Tea Party; the right say the killer was a lone nut. Whatever the case, his shooting of the Congresswoman was intentional; not just a random killing spree like Columbine, but more like the political shootings of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King. Those shootings were supposedly by lone nuts, too.

The blame has also been put on the gun laws. That's another issue that links all shootings, random as well as political. What I'm more interested in is the issue of "free speech" that moderates as well as the right-wing defend to the hilt. For it is the right to "free speech" that encourages political violence that is the key issue.

In the UK, "free speech" is a given right, but the previous Labour government also created the crime of "incitement to violence and religious hatred", which does not exist in the USA as far as I know. Free speech advocates criticised this law as a breach of human rights, but if conspiracy to murder is a crime, then why not incitement to commit violence? Is there really a huge difference? Yes, there may well be a difference between words and actions, but in a civilised society it is also up to people to take responsibility for their own words and actions.

Let's take another, also infamous, example: the offensive drawings of the Prophet Mohammed that caused so much anger (and inspired revenge attacks) in the Islamic world. At the time, some Western governments defended the right of the Danish cartoonist to be gratuitously offensive, saying that free speech shouldn't have to take account of people's sensibilities. Fine, then: why did they not simultaneously publish in their newspapers all the most hateful anti-Semitic cartoons, KKK propaganda, homophobic rhetoric and so on? Perhaps because those governments were not conveniently "at war" with Jews, blacks and homosexuals.
So this is the real issue: "civilised" people take account of the world they live in, and respect one another's views and culture. Respectable people and media do not publish content that would be gratuitously offensive, and certainly violent.

It is an unusual thing to say that the Tea Party and secular countries like France have something in common: defending till beyond the realms of sanity the idea of "free speech": even speech that can kill. The French and American right-wing are therefore singing from the same blinkered hymnsheet: these two countries born out of the same idealistic revolution now seem to advocate the most bloodyminded form of "freedom": the freedom to create chaos.

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