Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, abolitionist, anarchist who likes the letter A

On Speech

January 13, 2011 By: Mel Category: Change, Politics

I can’t believe the number of articles I have seen about the violent rhetoric of the right and how it is responsible for the Safeway shooting.  (I’m not going to call it the Gifford shooting, because a hell of a lot of people got shot that day and they count too.)   And now rumor has it that people are talking about criminalizing speech.

Because that is what we do when something horrible happens.  We immediately say, “somebody has got to do something.”  And that something always seems to be pass a new law.

Don’t get me wrong.  It isn’t that I disagree that words matter.  Language, culture, and social context effect our reality.  What we see as possible is shaped by all those things.  Who we pay attention to is shaped by those things.  Speech can incite people, especially people who are not completely in touch with reality.  But even if Sarah Palin’s target graphic is found to be hanging on Jared Lee Loughner’s bedroom wall, it would be a catastrophe to make that graphic criminal.

This week I happened to read The Dakar Declaration of the African Regional Preparatory Conference for the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance from January of 2001. One of the declarations recommendations was,

States should ensure the enactment of legislation declaring illegal and prohibiting all political platforms, organizations and propaganda activities which promote and incite racial discrimination and recognizing that participation in such organizations is an offense punishable by law.

I’m sympathetic.  I really am.  It is tempting to pass laws that would, theoretically, outlaw the KKK or the Nazi party.  This is not sympathy or self-righteousness talking.  It is self preservation.

But the next thing to think about, once you want to make something illegal, is how far you are going to go with the punishment.  Are we going to put people in prison for words?  For how long?  How about the death penalty?  Is that on the table too?

Even more troubling is that people who want to pass laws like that, out of genuine concern for social justice, don’t look at the current system and think about how those laws would be enforced.  There is virtually no difference in use rates for illegal drugs between white people and black people.  But black people are far more likely to be prosecuted and imprisoned for their use.

Does anybody think that enforcement of speech laws would be different? Do you think Sarah Palin would be more likely to go to prison for hate speech than Louis Farrakhan? Do you not realize what kinds of groups could be designated as “reverse racist,” criminalized, and prosecuted?  That is how laws work. They are used by the powerful against the powerless.  Always.

We cannot legislate our way out of our problems. We cannot criminalize all the loathsome people in the world.

The best we can do is to make speech by people like Sarah Palin irrelevant. And we do that by curing our discourse by proxy syndrome.  No more talking to each other through politicians and pundits.  We don’t need them.