Friday, May 14, 2010

Free Speech, Fair Speech, Fear Speech – Law Day 2010

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The Virginia Law Foundation’s Third Annual Law Day Conference was held April 30 at Richmond’s Holocaust Museum, its theme; “Free Speech, Fair Speech, Fear Speech: Civil Discourse in a Volatile World.” About 100 showed up to listen to the panel of three speakers. Conferees then formed discussion groups and sought to craft better tactics for dealing with speech which denigrates, humiliates and frightens.

The first speaker was Professor Susan Hirsch, a legal anthropologist. She teaches at George Mason University at the school’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Hirsch finds her students every bit as confrontational as our culture at large.

“Many freshmen in my class were very polarized in expressing their beliefs on many issues, not just political” she told the conference. Hirsch says she was surprised that the students believed highly argumentative speech is an appropriate and effective form of rhetoric, “and common ground was very, very seldom found. So what I’ve described was not unique to George Mason students. I can say that many students were pleased and relieved to learn how to present their views in less oppositional ways.”

If Hirsch’s students were inclined at first to be a trifle vitriolic, certainly the 2008 presidential campaign and the strident debates over health care reform offered examples of uncivil discourse. Drawing on her research outside the United States, Hirsch directed attention to recent inflammatory language that fueled violence; that of text messages sent during the 2007 – 2008 post-election unrest in Kenya. These messages urged rioters to “pull the weeds,” a metaphor for "cleansing" neighborhoods of opponents. She says such hostile, metaphorical speech gains its meaning from context and culture.

“Former vice-presidential candidate Sara Palin used the [culture] defense when she was accused of encouraging her supporters to use violence against their opponents: After the vote on healthcare, Palin wrote to her Twitter account, ‘Common-sense conservatives and lovers of America, don’t retreat, instead, reload! Please see my Facebook page.’ On that page was the same message, along with a map on which crosshair targets marked the districts of those who had supported health care legislation.

“Critics charged her with using the ‘reload’ phrase to advocate violence,” Hirsch recounted. “She answered by saying that those who follow her understand that she’s using a powerful symbol to promote activism, not violence. This example illustrates not only the cultural defense against accusations of using speech to promote violence, but also the difficulty of clarifying or explaining one’s meaning after the fact.”

In a larger sense, Hirsch believes violent, inflamed rhetoric injures our ability to address real problems.

“We’re losing our ability to deliberate complex issues from multiple perspectives,” she says. “That kind of discussion, though difficult, is a cornerstone of democracy. The climate for speech at the current moment, where asserting one’s viewpoint is all too often accompanied by ignoring, ridiculing or advocating the destruction of anyone who disagrees doesn’t leave much room for more nuanced deliberation and doesn’t convey the value of such speech.”

The sort of unyielding, bedrock opposition Hirsch calls “axiological opposition” leaves no room for creativity, but it does appeal to the more easily-frightened among us. It reduces the complex issues of a scary world to easy answers and promotes an In Group, Us-Against-Them mentality some find highly comforting.

Hirsch trains her students to react to hate speech by learning to listen to others - including to oppositional viewpoints - looking for common ground, turning discussions around, and getting differing groups to commit to long-term conversations about hot-button issues, complete with regular meetings to facilitate the full and frank exchange of views. She used as an example the community group “Not in Our Town,” which began in 1993 in Billings, Montana in response to vandalism and hate speech against native Amerindians and Jewish families. Organizer Margret MacDonald got the town to focus attention on perpetrators instead of victims using a simple visual cue.

“When a house with a menorah celebrating the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah was vandalized,” says Hirsch, “MacDonald’s group distributed drawings of menorahs which hundreds of the building’s residents, regardless of religion, put up in their windows to express solidarity. MacDonald calls the work of her group ‘creative, non-violent Ju-Jitsu.’”

All that said, this year’s Law Day Conference speakers did agree on one thing; the least effective weapon against modern hate speech would probably be government censorship.

/Mark Dorroh.

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