Sticks and Stones

Outrageous political speech needs to be countered with words, not laws

”Words can never hurt me.”

That’s one of the comforting lies we learn in childhood, along with ”cheaters never win,” ”you can be whatever you want to be,” and ”there are no real monsters.”

But then we grow up and discover the truth of life: that it’s not fair, that we all have limits to our talents and abilities, that monsters are far too real.

We also learn that words have sharp edges.

As LGBT people, we know a lot about the power of words to hurt, so it’s not unexpected that many in our community see our current political language as an encouragement or incitement to hate and violence. The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson — and the indiscriminate murder of her staff and bystanders — quickly became a flashpoint for those who believe the rhetoric of the right has grown so incendiary that it’s directly responsible for the tragedy.

It’s not that big of a stretch to see it that way, not just because of Sarah Palin’s infamous ”crosshairs” campaign targeting Giffords and other congressmen. The past couple of years have seen not only wild political language but a movement of people who express their Second Amendment rights by bringing guns to political events. The combination of fiery rhetoric and firearms should make people nervous, regardless of how absolute you may find the right to bear arms to be.

For the record, I think it’s hard to get past the fact that it’s right there in the Bill of Rights, but there’s no reason that the Second Amendment should be held as an absolute right in a way that the First Amendment has never been. Life and freedom has limits, particularly when a certain freedom has a tendency to end the life of another.

While our freedom of speech isn’t absolute — the whole panoply of libel, slander and fighting words — it isn’t something we should stifle in moments of fear and outrage. Less than an hour after news of the Tucson shooting broke I saw the first Twitter call for prosecution of Palin for incitement to murder. A congressman has already proposed legislation that would ban the use of ”violent” metaphors in political speech.

I feel no sympathy for Palin, whose crosshairs campaign was nauseating and vile, and who manages to make a bad situation worse by mixing her condolences for the victims with yet another defensive attack on the media (this time accompanied by a reference to ”blood libel,” a rather breathtaking moment, even for her). She and others — Beck, Coulter, Malkin, Limbaugh, ad infinitum — have made their living on political outrages, and should be held accountable for the content and character of our current political moment.

But creating an atmosphere of unease and discontent isn’t the same as inciting a specific act of violence. Like violent books, movies, music or games, rhetoric may set the stage, but it doesn’t pull the trigger. Again, this isn’t an excuse for bad behavior, just an acknowledgment that some monstrous acts lack a specific, single line of causation.

Words hurt because they have meaning. We use them every moment of every day, so we can forget exactly how powerful and dangerous they can be, whether it’s the discovered lie of a close friend or the hateful attack of an anti-gay politician.

Fortunately, words are also uplifting, inspiring, comforting. For those of us who are horrified by the violence we’ve seen and dispirited by the perversion of our political language, we have to use those words to create — or repair — the world we live in. As always, the solution lies with us.

Sean Bugg is Editor Emeritus for Metro Weekly.

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