Tag Archives: incitement

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In Defense of “Context”

In general, dullards think in binaries; trained experts will be far more interested in contextual variables.

It made good congressional theater to nail three Ivy League college presidents on a question of how they would manage verbal threats against Jews. The standard response now is that they prevaricated when they should have been unequivocal. Asked during the hearing whether suggesting the genocide of Jews was against their policies prohibiting harassment, Harvard’s Claudine Gay replied, “It can be, depending on the context.” But as she later noted, she should have returned to her “guiding truth, which is that calls for violence against our Jewish community — threats to our Jewish students — have no place at Harvard and will never go unchallenged.”

Gay missed the opportunity to make a clearer definitive statement against racism. But the presidents were not wrong to explicitly suggest the need for defining the contexts in which threats against others are spoken. There is a long tradition in the United States to treat overheated rhetoric against another group as unfortunate but mostly tolerated. We tolerate blather but not violent behavior. Courts in the country have rarely agreed on what constitutes “fighting words,” and whether they are legally actionable. In each case that has come before a federal court context mattered.

Peer societies like France have more stringent norms against “inciting hatred” that would have muzzled rhetorical provocateurs like Donald Trump years ago. His constant efforts to incite violence against reporters, election officials and politicians opposing him would have crossed the line. But Americans have tolerated Trump’s rhetoric because many view his taunts as the mostly harmless ravings of a man-child.  In some ways his abusive rhetoric is treated with the same kind of indifference American legislators have shown toward gun laws.

The three Ivy League presidents put on the hot seat by a New York Congresswoman were doing what academics are trained to do by trying to deconstruct a broad and panoramic question by considering contextual variables. For example, it is a credit to our culture and campuses that we usually do not send in goon squads to arrest a fiery orator. On my own campus I’ve seen visiting Christian evangelists single out and taunt a single Muslim woman in a hijab, with no interruption from the authorities on site. Should the campus police have stopped the hurtful hurangues of the speakers? Maybe. But I’m glad they let the crowd react with suitable anger.

Context Matters.

The same process is replicated by any trained specialist that is ready to face the messy externals that make any bald claim inaccurate. For example, the description of a dreaded disease to a hapless patient should come with a whole range of scenarios based on the particulars of a person’s case and recent past. A weather prediction similarly comes with a backstory that includes the specific meteorological conditions that are shaping what may happen. And it is obvious that a good biography of a key figure will always include carefully researched details that makes some authors rethink their initial  infatuation with their subject.

Too many members of Congress have perfected the “gotcha question.” But it is inconceivable that a scholar would not have an extended trail of qualifiers to amend a simple panoramic judgment. Their impulse would be to “unpack” the assumptions embedded in a question and wonder if there is a better formulation.  Nitpicking?  Not at all.  Any query suggesting a blanket prohibition of speech needs to be carefully considered.

To be sure, we clearly like the theater of take-no-prisoners questions. That is how television’s Perry Mason kept us riveted for over a decade. But life is complex. Even moral assertions have their limits. If we bother to notice, behaviors are usually more nuanced than our utterances about them. And so, it should not surprise us that the three academics wanted to explain themselves as if they were in a seminar. To be sure, they clearly picked the wrong “universe of discourse” for the setting they were in. They paid the price of having their thoughts reduced to soundbites that made them look equivocal. But it is useful to remember that all of this unfolded in what has become an alien place: a tarnished institution that has abandoned honest curiosity for the  low arts of deprecation and vituperation. It is clear that academics often have a higher standard of discourse that requires amendments, exceptions, genuine questions, and a willingness to hold two conflicting thoughts at the same time.

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‘Incitement’ Should Not be Protected Speech


We expect Presidents to condemn hate speech, not contribute to it by inciting violent attacks.

Our political and legal institutions are lagging badly in dealing with twenty-first century communication forms that enable acts of violence against others.  The sources of this rhetoric of hate may be politicians of various kinds, nativist groups that have formed online communities, or others using live forums.  All are threats to the nation that we seem ill-prepared to handle.  To add to the challenge, bloodshed motivated by hate has been made worse by a President whose billigerence has placed him in the chain of causes that have led to violence.

No one wants to give ground on protections for Americans to speak and publish at will. The First Amendment is our birthright. Dissent is often a necessary source of influence for needed reforms. The rights of advocates should always have a presumptive position in any discussion that would alter their protections.  Even so, we are facing threats from especially from two quarters that should have the attention of law enforcement officials everywhere.

Incredibly, as we have noted, one source of the problem is the President himself.  We are in a period dominated by unprecedented presidential bullying that a reasonable listener could understand as sanctioning attacks on members of the press and opponents.  This week, when a person in a Trump rally suggested shooting border crossers, Trump simply smiled and laughed it off: further evidence of his stunning moral vacancy.

In 2018 Trump praised a member of the House of Representatives, Greg Gianforte, who assaulted a journalist and knocked him to the floor at his Bozeman Montana office. Trump applauded this aggression at another rally, noting  “any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of — he’s my guy.” It’s part of a larger pattern of sneers and taunts often directed at national journalists who are often separated from a jeering MAGA crowd only by a rope line. Some news organizations have had little choice but to hire protection for their correspondents from mobs fired up by the President. That’s how bad it’s become.

In yet another recent rally Trump talked about reproductive health clinics as if they were in the business of murdering babies. His specific choice of words included “executing babies,” followed by a chopping gesture that we might see in a butcher shop. This kind of talk was apparently enough to motivate at least one man, Matthew Haviland, to threaten kill “every Democrat” and other pro-choice demons he imagined, triggering a rare response from the F.B.I’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.  We expect Presidents to condemn hate speech, not contribute to it by inciting attacks on other Americans.

The second source of this problem is even more ominous because it is also omnipresent. It is hate speech that is easily spread via extremist manifestos online.  Most terrorism experts have given up on the old law enforcement bromide of the “lone wolf” shooter: a characterization that might have once been used to explain gun attacks similar to those on American synagogues in San Diego and Pittsburgh. Now, the more common analysis is that individuals are connected by racist or anti-immigrant websites that still get First Amendment protections.  Apparently even haters have their chat groups.  John Earnest, the attacker in San Diego, was reportedly motivated by online rhetoric from the recent New Zealand mass murderer, who was trying to exterminate Muslims.

Our hands-off approach is producing increasingly dire results. 

Online manifestos functioning as calls to action against “alien” groups are all over the internet, sometimes taken down by individual platforms like Facebook, and sometimes allowed to stand.  Groups may be motivated by anti-semitism, racism, hostility to immigrants and others. The problem is enormous because one platform that might reject content can be replaced by another. There is always an internet server somewhere inside or outside the United States that will host poisonous content.

To be sure, an internet that has turned into what the New York Times has called a “sea of hate” is beyond the easy control of any one nation.  Like most digital media, content easily slips through political boundaries.  Even so, we could be doing more to curb homegrown threats.

Should we Protect Hate Speech that Targets Others?

For the most part, hate speech in the United States is protected.  A 1969 Supreme Court Case, Brandenburg v. Ohio, allows vitriol to exist unless it is likely to incite “imminent lawless action.”  But few federal judges then or now want to prosecute speech on this premise.  There is a long legal tradition to err in favor of the hothead expressing verbal hostility. But this hands-off approach is producing increasingly dire results.  While most Americans would accept the rights of even a Nazi group to march or a group of white supremacists to gather, others might question why incitement is so narrowly defined.  For example, English law allows charges to be brought against a person for “incitement to racial hatred.”  Would our admirable record of tolerance of free speech be significantly harmed by a similar prohibition suggesting a violent response?

Smarter minds than mine need to begin to sort all of this out.  But it appears that our laws and constitutional protections are far behind our technology and the coarsening of our rhetoric.  We now have robust networks for the dissemination of hatred, even while basic norms of civility have withered.