‘Banning language’ is not on the table

‘BANNING LANGUAGE’ IS NOT ON THE TABLE…. Saturday’s massacre in Tucson renewed a larger discussion about excessive, overheated rhetoric in our political discourse, which strikes me as a good idea. Slate‘s Jack Shafer wrote a much-discussed piece over the weekend, making the opposite case.

Shafer’s point was to offer a defense of “inflamed” rhetoric. The subhead of the piece wasn’t subtle: he lamented “the awesome stupidity of the calls to tamp down political speech in the wake of the Giffords shooting.”

The piece is worth reading, though I found it unpersuasive, and it included one point in particular that warrants a closer look.

Any call to cool “inflammatory” speech is a call to police all speech, and I can’t think of anybody in government, politics, business, or the press that I would trust with that power. As Jonathan Rauch wrote brilliantly in Harper’s in 1995, “The vocabulary of hate is potentially as rich as your dictionary, and all you do by banning language used by cretins is to let them decide what the rest of us may say.” Rauch added, “Trap the racists and anti-Semites, and you lay a trap for me too. Hunt for them with eradication in your mind, and you have brought dissent itself within your sights.”

I’m fairly certain this concern is backwards. I’ve noted here and elsewhere many times that I’d like to see conservatives turn down the temperature on some of their more extreme rhetoric, but it’s never occurred to me to call for legal restrictions on anyone’s speech.

Indeed, I’ve lost count of how many pieces in recent years have taken note of rhetorical excesses in our discourse, but I honestly can’t think of any prominent political voice that has recommended that speech be “policed.”

Calls to “cool ‘inflammatory’ speech” are about societal pressure. They’re about urging those in the discourse to be responsible, not out of fear of official or legal recourse, but because it’s the right thing to do (for the democracy, for the social fabric, for public safety, etc.).

Perhaps the single most outrageous form of political speech I can think of in recent history was Sharron Angle’s talk of “Second-Amendment remedies.” All kinds of people said Angle’s comments were disgusting, but did anyone suggest for a moment she shouldn’t have been allowed to say it?

Shafer fears a slippery slope — first we urge people to show restraint, and the next thing you know, the First Amendment is under attack. These fears seem wholly unnecessary — the point is about unenforced societal expectations and basic political norms. Nothing more.

Noam Scheiber added, “A call to cool inflammatory speech can be just that — a call to cool inflammatory speech. It is by no means interchangeable with a call to ban certain words. Shafer is missing the distinction between a rule or a law, on the one hand, and a norm.”