Sticks and Stones – Words and Consequences

Wayne_McCormack_fylk5dBy Wayne McCormack for 

Thousands of gallons of ink are being spilled about the attack on Charlie Hebdo, almost all condemning the violence, some questioning the extent to which ridicule is appropriate, and some even tending to assert the need for a police state to monitor and detain any person who might be potentially violent.

Among all the discussions and suggestions of the French incident, the call for more government enforcement against radical thoughts is the most repugnant. Sure, we could have safety against group violence – the streets of Nazi Germany were perfectly safe for those who were seen to be hewing to the party line. But the price of living in a free society is risk, risk of death on the highway, risk of death at the hands of psychopaths, and even risk of death at the hands of misguided ideologues.

Meanwhile, thousands may be dying in Nigeria at the hands of Boko Haram and in the Sudan at the hands of both government and rebel forces. How many people in Western Europe have turned out to show solidarity with their African brothers and sisters caught in massive poverty and violence? That’s another story, for now let us focus on the issues of expression and violence raised in France.

Most of us grew up with the admonition that “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” As I puzzled over that aphorism in grade school, I decided it meant that I should be tough enough to take whatever the bullies threw my way until they took to physical violence at which point I needed to know how to fight back. But maybe there is more to this phrasing, just as there are messages in the stories of the Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood.

Are there limits on the use of words? Unquestionably. There are limits imposed both by government and by social norms, and it is important to recognize the difference. It has been decades now since the phrase “political correctness” came into our collective lexicon. At the time, I considered it rather abhorrent, and I still have great difficulty with the idea that a political position can dictate what is “correct” and what is not.

Sure, I have good reason to avoid hate speech. I grew up in a part of the U.S. where the “N” word was prominent, and I learned early on how damaging that word could be to entire groups of people. More recently, almost everyone has learned how to engage discussions of gay rights, feminism, and any number of racial/ethnic issues with respectful dialogue. Some in society have not learned that lesson and continue to use hateful or pejorative language about persons who go into categories of “others” – those who are different from the speaker in some identifiable way.

It is clear in our collective consciousness that hateful or pejorative speech can be harmful. My third grade teacher was wrong – words can hurt, and they can be deeply harmful to entire populations by condemning them to poverty and discrimination.

What should we do about those who haven’t learned that words can be harmful? Again, it is important to distinguish between the actions of government and the impact of social norms. Government, we have now been told by the U.S. Supreme Court, can enhance the penalty of any crime if the crime were motivated by animosity on the basis of race, sex, religion, or other factors beyond the control of the victim. There are those who have questioned these rulings on the basis that they essentially punish the beliefs or the expression of the actor, but they only kick in when there has been another demonstrable criminal act, such as an assault. Going further, the German Criminal Code allows for punishment of Holocaust denial or neo-Nazi propaganda, but perhaps that is explainable by the peculiar history of Nazi Germany.

For the most part, at least Western nations adhere to the principle that government is not allowed to punish a person for expression unless the expression itself carries a demonstrable risk of harm. Thus, “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater” lands one in similar trouble to committing fraud, defamation, invasion of privacy, or intentional infliction of emotional distress. Indeed, even the category of conspiracy requires more than a mere agreement but also some overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.

Freedom of expression protects even the most hateful and obnoxious speech from government punishment for at least two important reasons. First, obnoxious speech educates the public by showing the obnoxious idea for what it is – we learn what is abhorrent from hearing the abhorrent. Second, speech that seems obnoxious or wrong-headed at first may turn out to have valuable content – surely everyone knows by now that Galileo was punished for insisting that the earth was round.

The suggestion that intelligence and police forces should ramp up their actions against potentially dangerous militants runs into a double problem. In the first place, that kind of police behavior would almost certainly trample on important protected personal liberties – liberties that are important to the body politic. Second, the suggestion raises the issue of what a society’s priorities should be. Do we really want to spend more money policing our own populace than we spend on providing safe transportation, health care, and education for that populace? What kind of world would that be in which to live?

Now, what about the social setting and the likelihood that words do cause harm? If I preach hate in my job setting, should I be protected? No reason for it. My words may well have consequences and employers should be free to impose consequences on the speaker. If a law professor publishes a hateful article in the newspaper, should I be surprised to find that I don’t get funding for my next pet project?

The consequences of words may be reciprocal. One reason for the “sticks and stones” aphorism was to toughen me against mere name-calling. Unfortunately, it could also mean that my words could trigger someone else’s use of weapons against me. In recent days, we have seen a number of questions raised about whether intentionally derogatory or provocative publications are just asking for trouble. Well, in some sense, that could be possible. But should they have that consequence? Not at all.

The social dynamic is such that consequences for our words are to be meted out within the social setting itself – impact on relationships such as friendships and jobs – but not to be met with physical violence. That is where the social merges over into the public. The role of government is to protect all of us from violence. That government cannot protect all people at all times is a given, so risk is with us every minute of every day. But social norms also protect us, and it is an important norm that rude or obnoxious speech is not to be countered with violence.

The remedy for hateful speech is not silence but better speech.