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The Immorality of Extreme Speech

Ian Wendt asked:

We like to get worked up. You have seen it – two people facing off, red in the face, sweat on the brow, a bit of saliva on the lips. Yes, I am talking politics. Yeah, we like to get worked up. That’s fine. But when our rhetoric or our debate descends into vulgarity, personal attacks, shouting, abuse, or violence by language, we have lost something important. Vulgarity and abusive language are obvious signs of weak, lazy thinking. But more importantly, there is a fundamental immorality to extreme speech. That rhetorical immorality belittles those who have suffered and do suffer real abuse; and extreme speech robs our world of a level of crucial meaning.

Ideology and Politics as Entertainment

Ideology has become entertainment. Cable news, radio talk shows, shockjocks, bloggers – all of these have an inherent entertainment value. Of course the successful ones also have substance: something to say, ideas, arguments. But often times the style becomes the message. It is not about the ideas; it’s about the insults. Perhaps that is good for online journals like Ideology Forum at some level; but it is also troubling.

Raising the volume and the temperature of your rhetoric can be great for ratings and ad revenue. There are a wide array of people who have become famous and rich by skillfully exploiting extreme rhetoric. Extremity brings notoriety and attracts viewers. Of course you had better be careful you don’t move from notable to notorious – a shift that Don Imus made almost overnight. But even that line, once crossed can become a cross to carry and advertise. ‘My enemies are persecuting me.’ ‘Those censors are attacking my first amendment rights.’

We are participating in a gradual synthesis of news, politics and entertainment. We are participating. In this more democratic media age, we participate by watching and listening and reading (and paying) the extreme speakers. We are participating by joining the debate on the internet and using increasingly extreme rhetoric ourselves. But our speech has consequences.

I love politics. I love politics because it matters – for policy, for governance, for law, for liberty. I love it for the ideas and the debate. I love it for the human dramas that constantly play out in democracy. I love politics and ideology for many reasons – and among those is the exhilarating experience of politics as sport. We root for our parties, for our favorite politicians. We follow the horserace. We stay up on election night waiting for the results, for the latest round of the US Government Championship Series. Many even bet on the outcome – in more ways than one. This is more than just another sports analogy for life. We do follow politics as sports. I suppose that ideally politics would not descend to sport – but it does.

Perhaps the most important negative consequence of treating politics, ideas and ideology as sport is: that we mistake the means of politics for the ends. Elections and campaigns ought to be means toward the end of governance. After the election, good governance should be possible based on principled debate and compromise on issues. Instead, the election becomes the permanent end and we sacrifice principles and governance in favor of attacking personalities and politicians. It is not about governance or laws; it’s about winning and losing. And there is always another election in a couple of years.

The permanent campaign and politics as sport exacerbates the use of extreme speech. It does not matter what you say, so long as you destroy your opponent. Even long after the campaign, we continue to viciously attack one another because governance and compromise is no longer the goal. The goal is winning the next round, the next championship. Our politicians are guilty of this; activists and lobbyists are guilty of this; we are all guilty of this.

The Weakness of Extreme Speech

Public debate and rhetorical combat is a long-revered tradition. It is alive and well. Ideology Forum exists to provide a space for the practice of open ideological debate. Do not misunderstand the purpose of this article – I do not think that we should all get along and compromise our principles for the sake of peace and quiet. People have passionate ideals and causes for good reason. At a basic level, loud, angry rhetoric is better than the silence of apathy.

But there are a variety of weaknesses exposed by high volume, personal attacks and vulgarity. Primarily, they are not communicative. Shouting and insults do not communicate meaning. They are just attacks. Vulgarity shows a lack of thought and meaning, an inability to articulate ideas, and a basic intellectual laziness. Vulgar attacks communicate only anger, frustration, (bad) judgment, and (self) contempt. They seek to demean rather than engage. Such attacks and rhetoric are an admission that you have lost the debate, or you lack the skills or will to win rhetorically.

There have been times in our past when insults had wit. Abraham Lincoln was not above insulting his opponents: “He can compress the most words into the smallest ides of any man I know.” Winston Churchill and Oscar Wilde also had the knack for wit and insult that did not demean the listener simply by hearing. But today, we too often resort to calling our opponents ‘Nazi baby killers’ then move on as if we have completed an argument.

There is such a wide array of common examples of the weakness of extreme speech that it hardly requires rehearsing them. So I won’t.

The Immorality of Extreme Speech

But extreme speech is more than just weak; it does more than demean the speaker, the object, and the listener. Extreme speech – particularly extreme analogies and extreme relativism – actually belittle those who have suffered and do suffer real abuses; and extreme speech robs our world of a level of crucial meaning. Extreme analogies and extreme relativism are actually fundamentally immoral.

Extreme analogies are an insidious kind of rhetoric that has become practically ubiquitous. The fools’ gold standard of extreme analogies is calling your opponent Hitler. Godwin’s rule of Nazi analogies states, “the longer a discussion takes place on the internet and the more people involved, the probability of someone being compared to Hitler or the Nazis approached one.” In other words, if enough people talk long enough on the internet, someone is sure to start shouting, ‘Nazi!’ These attacks are everywhere. It is passé to call to call people ‘Commies’. But asserting that your opponents are goose-stepping their way toward Fascism and genocide – what an argument! – is so common that we don’t even flinch at it. This is just another cheap way to shout down your opponent, without engaging their ideas or arguments.

But there is something deeply wrong with constantly shouting Hitler at ones opponents; and it goes much deeper than immature language. It is actually immoral to constantly call all of your opponents little Eichmanns. What about the people who have actually suffered from the things you purport to hate so much? You hate fascism? You hate abuse of human rights? You hate anti-democratic activities? You hate genocide and systematic rape and torture? Then take them seriously. Do not accuse political opponents of such terrible crimes unless they actually commit them. If they do commit crimes against human rights, then be specific. Such accusations should mean something; they should have power; they should work toward lifting the suffering of the abused.

Conversely and perversely, the vulgarity of calling everyone Nazis actually belittles the suffering of people who have died and continue to die at the hands of despots. If everyone you disagree with is a Nazi, then being a Nazi is silly; it’s stupid; it’s meaningless. But it is not and cannot be meaningless. Too many people have been starved or worked to death or gassed in concentration camps, or hacked to death by machetes, or burned alive in
churches, or tortured to death in hidden
places. Too many people have been raped, tortured and killed all over the world during the 20th and 21st centuries to demean their lives and deaths by calling your opponent in a political debate a Nazi. We must preserve the meaning and power of speech.

The immorality of extreme relativism is a very similar abuse of the meaning and power of speech. False assertions of moral equivalence are deeply immoral. Blithely asserting that all morality is relative undermines the position of people who suffer real abuse of their human rights. Morals and cultural can indeed differ according to circumstances. But this should not and cannot stop us from identifying abuse and condemning it. People know when their human rights are violated – and they don’t need ‘Western’ ideals or morals to tell them they have been abused. Similarly we must be capable of distinguishing between different forms of abuse, because if all abuses are equivalent then they are all the more trivial.

Sadly, the examples of false moral equivalence and amoral relativism are terribly commonplace. How often have you read or heard arguments that falsely equated the morality of government surveillance in a democratic state with extrajudicial executions in authoritarian states? When we assert the moral equivalence of completely different acts, we rob our world of a basic level of meaning.

If we really care about liberty, democracy and human rights, then we must be willing to condemn abuses wherever they occur; and we must be willing to judge, compare and more loudly condemn the more terrible abuses. If we refuse to condemn any abuse, we ignore some victims in favor of others. If we are unwilling to evaluate and recognize greater abuses, we belittle the victims of the worst abuse. If we equate moderate abuses (or heaven forbid non-abuses) with genocide, then we make a direct attack on the meaning of language and basic morality.

Extreme analogies and false moral equivalence are deeply immoral forms of speech.

Abusive, vulgar, personal attacks are weak tools that we do not need. Extreme analogies and false moral equivalence do much greater damage to those who truly suffer than the damage we may accomplish to our opponent’s argument. People will be convinced by the power of our ideas, the reality of our experience, and the intelligence and clarity of our rhetoric. We do not need extreme speech.

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