Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Categorizing aggressive partisan speech

I was doing some great thinking today, as always, as I plodded along on the treadmill. Something about "Whip My Hair" on my iPod and the little red blinking lights in front of me trigger my higher cerebral functions.


One of the things we talk about when addressing gridlock is the way in which politicians and policymakers address each other and the public. Often, their speech is aggressively partisan - aggressive in and of itself. That is, it's speech that denigrates a member of the opposition or the opposition's beliefs themselves. I think we can break down this sort of speech into two categories that are useful for thinking about aggression, speech, and gridlock.

First, we have offensive speech. Think of Dick Cheney telling a colleague to "go f* yourself". That's a patently offensive, juvenile sort of thing to say in a professional environment. It can certainly hamper group dynamics by creating ill will and a hostile environment. It is, however, something that we sort of move past. The colleague being insulted here is a rich white guy; he's not suffering in any real way by being exposed to a curse word. He'll be fine.

On the other hand, there's harmful speech. That is, speech that doesn't just cause ill will or strife that hampers inter-governmental harmony. It's speech that marginalizes other people and encourages thinking of other people as "less than". Think of the Tea Party speaker who recently told a crowd of LGBT protesters that he would not be "silenced by f*gs". That sort of statement isn't just going to make it harder for Tea Party reps to work with non-Tea Partiers who might be pro-LGBT rights; it's also going to reinforce broader social ideas that a person who is gay is hostile, worthy of being called slurs, and so on and so forth. A nameless gay rights worker is by far more vulnerable than a long-term Senator (and in fact, the protesters at this event were subject to violence, if you check out the article linked).

Certainly, I wouldn't argue for any law that outlaws certain kinds of speech by policymakers, even when that speech is harmful. I've agreed with, for instance, the Snyder case protecting Westboro Baptist's right to make hideously bigoted protest statements. But I think categorizing and thinking about the types of aggressive and/or partisan speech by policymakers can help us move forward in responding to that speech and making proactive choices.

If Dick Cheney tells other politicians to "go f*" themselves, we can expect those politicians to be grown-ups, to be the better person, to continue to work professionally with Cheney. We can basically ignore that kind of statement, I think, in the interests of bipartisanship.

If we have Tea Partiers using the wholly different, much more harmful "f-word", we need to continue to be professional, of course - but we cannot ignore those statements. We cannot tolerate hate speech by those in charge of making our laws, for if we allow hate speech to flourish, we sacrifice both our ability to make a functional government and our ability to protect marginalized people. In these cases, I think professional or public media censure is appropriate. I think it's wholly appropriate to refuse to work with hatemongers, especially on the issues that bring out their bigotry.

How do you perceive that politicians and policymakers should address potentially harmful statements by their colleagues?

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