Insults, and what to do about them

Dueling must be ruled out, but are laws against hate speech the death knell of satire and fair criticism?
Theron Bowers | Feb 6 2008 | comment  



As winter began, American radio personality Don Imus ended his eight-month hibernation and returned to the airwaves. You may recall that, after insulting the Rutgers University women's basketball champions last April, Imus was hounded into a hole by activists and the public. Imus is known as a shock jock. The best known shock jock is Howard Stern; and Imus (also called the I-man) is no Stern. He does not have vulgar sexual banter and other crudities that are common on shows like Stern's. His show is about pop culture and politics.

Joining Imus on his first day back were presidential historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Senators Chris Dodd and John McCain. Although this cranky westerner returned chastened and vowing to preach the gospel of good race relations, he still has his sharp tongue. According to AP, the I-man commented on his return: "Other than that, not much has changed. Dick Cheney is still a war criminal, Hillary Clinton is still Satan and I'm back on the radio."

The medieval aristocrats tempered their pride with humour. The modern, humourless egalitarians on college campuses and human rights commissions could use a few jesters.

I guess the lesson he learned wasn't applied to the rest of mankind.

Imus is a modern day jester. Instead of kings and nobles, he works in the courts of politicians and celebrities. Once upon a time in societies without free speech jesters could talk about controversial issues. Apparently, we still need jesters because our speech is not as free as our boasting about freedom suggests. Most jesters weren't as foolish as they looked. They had to know when their master could and could not take a jab.

Like the royal joker who is tossed in the dungeon, Imus goes too far at times. Wamba, the court jester in Scott's Ivanhoe, is a genius compared to Imus. In addition to the Rutgers' incident, the controversial radio star has been recently sued by a sponsor for his "libelous and disparaging statements". 

Lacking an appreciation for not so subtle wit, the advertiser Flatsigned Press went ballistic when Imus promoted former President Ford's book with a rhyme: "Now that ol' President Ford has flatLINED, buy your piece of American history at FlatSIGNED.com."

Unlike the old court fool, the I-man gets to keep his head when his sarcasm backfires. In the not so distant past, angered kings and nobles punished insolence by death, beatings or imprisonment. Although not a jester, the French satirist and court gadfly Voltaire was imprisoned for insulting the aristocracy. Even in democratic America, men violently protected their honour.

Our leniency with insulting behaviour is taken for granted in this age of historical illiteracy. The legal change is not as amazing as our attitudinal shift. In 2006, Australian actor Russell Crowe pleaded guilty to third-degree assault for throwing a phone at a surly hotel clerk in New York. Crowe says that the incident was overblown. History is on his side; but the law and the social mood are against fights for honour.

Jerome Neu in a new book, Sticks and Stones, the Philosophy of Insults, explores insults and our response to them. It has only been within the last century that insults were no longer a justification for assaults and even homicide. Society did try to regulate the responses to attacks on honour with such customs as the duel. From our judgment seat of the here and now, most would consider duels and gunfights irrational barbarism. However, as Neu notes, duels initially limited violence and helped to avert larger feuds between families. Neu speculates that the bloodshed of World War I ended dueling in Europe. I would add that the end of the aristocracy and the growing power of the state contributed to dueling's extinction. Moreover, when we stopped burning blasphemers for insulting God, it was inevitable that lesser creatures, even a king, would have to turn the other cheek.

Do we handle insults any better today? Our reluctance to personally beat or collectively jail the offender is an unnoticed achievement of classical liberalism. The victory may be short-lived. Nannycrats and postmodern sophists are chipping away the edifices of the enlightenment. We now have codes and laws against hate speech. Previously, speech was secondary to honour; now radical egalitarianism may smother the voice of derision and criticism in democracies.

Today, hate speech is defined as insulting comments related to race, sex, religion and various other aspects of persons. Of course all slanders, slurs and derision should be considered hate speech, but, according to the ruling Animal Farm logic, some targets are more equal than others. Free speech advocates document the numerous outrages against liberty but fail to examine the twisted reasoning behind the push to regulate obnoxiousness. Hate speech laws are gaining some ground in Western democracies. The Canadian Human Rights Commission has a case against conservative essayist Mark Steyn and McLean's magazine for insulting Islam, and against another magazine for publishing the Danish cartoons insulting Mohammed.

Neu examines the hate speech debate and the Alice-in-Wonderland universe of critical race theory. Speech code proponents justify restrictions on speech by noting that hate speech serves no useful purpose and can be harmful. Who decides what is useful? I imagine the neo-Nazis think that their pamphlets are useful. A simplistic, utilitarian approach will not determine who ought to shut up.

The other argument is that hate speech is harmful. The guru for hate speech, critical race theorist Mari Matsuda, has a book entitled, Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech and the First Amendment. The title places words on the same level as physical behaviors -- referring to "wounding" and "assaulting". Slurs and other insults can cause hurt feelings but so can constructive criticism. Undoubtedly, for your mother to say, "You're a bum", is much more hurtful than if it cam from some clown in a hood. The speech police can provide no evidence of direct harm from words in the physical or psychological realm. Unlike words, a punch in the mouth has a demonstrable effect.

The most Orwellian excuse for regulating speech is that hate speech silences its target and discussion on the subject. Having recently celebrated Martin Luther King's birthday, I find it difficult to believe that after attacking dogs, fire-hosing, beatings and arrests, only name calling was needed to end the civil rights movement. The argument that we have to silence some speech to allow more speech is belittling towards the intended benefactors.

The same intellectuals who sneer at our ancestors' protection of their honour are blind to their own arrogance and intolerance. The medieval aristocrats tempered their pride with humour. The modern, humourless egalitarians on college campuses and human rights commissions could use a few jesters.

Theron Bowers MD is a Texas psychiatrist.

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