My two cents about the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords:
- The attack was obviously politically inspired, even though the shooter may have been insane. An insane act isn’t necessarily apolitical. There may or may not be a direct causal link between the attack and the “heated political rhetoric” that has come to characterize American politics and that often borders on incitement. (Compared to other western democracies, the political language is indeed extreme in the US). If there is such a link, it will be very hard to establish, given what we know about the psychology of the attacker.
- In general, violent rhetoric can contribute to actual violence (see this paper for example). The case of the Rwanda genocide is well-known. And we don’t need to go and look at extremes in order to find cases of hate speech turning into hate crime. There are not a few pedophiles who have had there whereabouts shouted from the rooftops and who suffered the consequences. Given the omnipresence and ease-of-use of the media in developed societies, what is published and broadcast through these media may very well nurture or even provoke extremism and hate in society. It’s futile to deny this possibility.
- This general conclusion does not warrant the automatic linking of a case of violence to instances of political rhetoric that seem to be a possible inspiration. In other words, it’s not because Sarah Palin was silly enough to publish a map with cross-hairs “targeting” Giffords (among others) in a purely political and non-violent way, that her actions caused the attack. Maybe these actions contributed, maybe not. Most likely we’ll never know. And even if they did contribute in driving a sick person over the edge – which is not impossible – then they are most likely only one element in a large set of causal factors, including the perpetrator’s education, medical care (or lack thereof), the ease with which he could acquire a gun etc. That large set doesn’t drown individual causes but it does diminish the importance of each (possible) cause. Human motivation and the determinants of human action are almost always highly complex. (Something which is too often forgotten in criminal sentencing).
- Given the general possibility of speech resulting in violence, is that possibility a sufficient reason to limit our freedom of speech, even before the actual violence occurs? Yes, but only in very specific cases, namely those cases in which the link between speech and (possible) violence is clear. John Stuart Mill used the example of an excited mob assembled in front of the house of a corn dealer accused of starving the poor. Hate speech in such a setting is likely to lead to violence, while the exact same words printed in an obscure magazine are not. The words in the magazine should be protected by freedom of speech; the words of the mob leaders probably not.
- Yet even when words should be left free by the law, morality requires of speakers that they consider the possible consequences of speech.
- Are the events we witnessed recently of the same nature as the words of the mob leaders? And what about similar recent events? I don’t think so. Which means that the people concerned have not abused their freedom of speech.
- Does that mean that they used their freedom in a good way? No, it doesn’t. Heated rhetoric is almost never the best way to talk, not even for the purposes of the speaker. It doesn’t tend to accomplish a lot or to further anyone’s interests (apart from the interest in getting attention). So those of us who insist on “turning it down a notch” have good reasons to do so. This insistence obviously doesn’t imply curtailment. It’s just a question, and it deals with form rather than content. People are generally too fast to claim their right to free speech when confronted with criticism of the way in which they use or abuse this right. Criticism of speech doesn’t automatically imply the will to prohibit speech, and freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from criticism. Quite the opposite.