Sunday, 9 January 2011

Speech has Consequences

One of the things on this blog I have repeatedly said is that speech has consequences. For the most part I have said this in the context of marginalised people and hate speech – how marginalised people will have low self-image and even self hate when they’re in a society that continually demeans and hates and degrades them. How the haters will be discriminatory, bigoted and violent towards them while they’re in a society whose speech continually upholds such prejudice, accepts such prejudices and promotes such prejudice.

Hate speech has always had a cost – it is the foundation on which prejudice is built, it is the cheerleader squad for threatening action, it is the rallying cry for the violent, the extremist, the bigot. Speech can and does excuse the violence, it encourages it, it supports it and it makes it ok, acceptable, NORMAL.



And this applies just as much to political discourse as we have just tragically seen in the US.

Violent rhetoric in politics has always been an unfortunate staple – especially in the US. Poverty, Drugs, Terrorism? These aren’t wounds to heal or problems to solve or even criminals to catch – they’re wars to fight and battles to combat. There has always been an aggressive slant to the rhetoric (It’s said that “when all all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” – then what can we say when all you have is a bullet?)

But this is further exacerbated and taken to new limits looking over the right wing there (and I don’t say they’re the only ones, but they extremely unrestrained and unrestrainedly extreme). How many rallies have wee seen with banners like “If Brown cannot stop health care, then Browning can” or “Time to Water the Tree of Liberty.”?

We know what these mean. They’re threats, they're calls to violence – and they were held up in rallies and accepted and normalised and understood. Violent threats were accepted as part of the discourse.

And worse – they were adopted by people who were supposed to be in authority. Not just demonstrators on the ground (and, I think, we can all admit that any demonstration is going to have a fringe) – but present, past and aspiring elected officials. That’s not fringe – that’s mainstream adopting the same violent rhetoric.

Congressman Michelle Bachman has said so many violent things that I can’t even keep track

Senate candidate Sharon Angle called for “second amendment remedies”

Former VP-hopeful and ex-governor Sarah Palin posted on her Twitter feed “Don’t Retreat, instead reload”

Sarah Palin has also produced an image on her website putting gun crosshairs over the districts of several democrats.

Congressional Candidate Jesse Kelly, Republican candidate in Arizona in the 2010 election spoke of shooting M16s in an event leading up to the election

And now a gunman has attacked Rep Gifford, Jesse Kelly’s opponent and one of the targets of those crosshairs. She is now in hospital, severely injured after being shot. 6 other people died in the attack – including a 9 year old girl. Jarod Loughner and a possible unknown accomplice killed 6 people. And maybe there’s no connection, maybe there was no influence – but I doubt it

These are just some examples of the rhetoric of violence, I know we’ve all seen more, repeated over and over again and from people in or aspiring to be in some of the highest offices in government. The constant reference to guns and ammunition, the battle analogies, the violent references, the borderline – and not so borderline – threats coming from people we would hope would know better (though experience tells us not to expect them to know anything).

And all this violent rhetoric and violent posturing has welled up and killed several people, including a child. And we should not – cannot – be surprised by this. With every threat, every symbol, every metaphor, every gun site, the use of violence in politics was established, normalised and accepted. You can’t call for violence use the language of violence, normalise violence and then be surprised when violence happens.

Sadly the concept of “free speech” is one of the most abused and twisted you will ever come across. Once meant to be a simple concept that the government shouldn’t suppress dissenting views, shouldn’t try and hide and cover things up. It was a principle to prevent newspapers being shut down, to prevent the shit being stuffed under the rug, to prevent anyone who had an idea or a different system from being

Now it is used more and more and more for people to say any kind of vile shit and expect everyone to smile and eat it. Now it is used to pretend that speech has no consequence, has no power, that it is not part of the hatred or the violence or the pain that uses it as a foundation.

Free speech arose precisely because speech has power. It has great power, sometimes devastating power. When used foolishly, carelessly or maliciously it can hurt – it can wound and it can kill. And just because your weapons were words do not mean the blood is not on your hands.