Law & the Courts

Black Lives Matter – Words Have Consequences

Police block the crime scene were three officers were killed in Baton Rouge, La. (Joe Penney/Reuters)
Protect speech — and shame those who advocate violence.

What, exactly, is the relationship between rhetoric and violence? Whenever there is a politically motivated murder, there is an immediate race to find and fix the “real” blame for the attack — to find that rhetoric that allegedly motivated the murder and discredit the speaker. Perhaps the worst modern example is the rush to blame Sarah Palin for Jared Loughner’s attack on Arizona Democratic representative Gabrielle Giffords.

In the absence of any evidence that Loughner was motivated by politics, some on the Left launched one of our tiresome “national conversations” on civility. Others went so far as to blame the Tea Party. Here was Arizona Democrat Raul Grijalva:

[When] you stoke these flames, and you go to public meetings and you scream at the elected officials, you threaten them — you make us expendable, you make us part of the cannon fodder. For a while, you’ve been feeding this hatred, this division . . . you feed it, you encourage it. . . . Something’s going to happen. People are feeding this monster. . . . Some of the extreme right wing has made demonization of elected officials their priority.

The political motivation is obvious. Tie an opponent to dreadful violence, and you can discredit him entirely, banishing him from mainstream discourse. It’s an impulse not confined to the Left. Just this week, the Cleveland Police Association president declared that “President Obama has blood on his hands” despite the fact that he never — not once — stated or implied that violence against the police was justifiable or acceptable.

But what about the explicit calls for violence that do exist? We’ve seen Black Lives Matter protests degenerate into violence, with protesters cheering loudly when police are hurt. We’ve seen marchers chant, “What do we want? Dead cops!” or “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon.” Twitter has been a cesspool of violent anti-cop sentiment, with some apparent Black Lives Matter supporters openly celebrating the murders in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

Two things can be true at once. First, it is true that ultimate responsibility for violent acts rests with the criminal and his or her co-conspirators. A person does not lose his moral agency merely because his peer group is evil or because he is influenced by calls for violence.

Second, it is also true that calls for violence — especially when those calls come from one’s peer group — can be persuasive. One of the most obvious truths in human history is that words matter. Words can motivate revolutions, and they can certainly motivate murder. While I’ve got my disagreements with such clichés as “The pen is mightier than the sword,” no one doubts that the pen is mighty — and that’s precisely why our nation’s founding generation strove to protect free speech.

Words can motivate virtue and vice. Would enough young men and women be willing to enlist to serve during America’s longest war if the military wasn’t America’s most respected institution? Would our military be able to fill its ranks if soldiers were universally mocked and reviled?

Because words matter, it is the responsibility of the citizen to deploy them carefully. Because words matter, it is the responsibility of the state to maximize individual liberty. Indeed, there is no true freedom without freedom of speech. Arguably, it is the freedom to disagree, to debate, and to dissent that ultimately makes our other freedoms possible. Without debate and dissent, there is no reform.

Black Lives Matter shouldn’t be banned, but many of its supporters should be ashamed.

Thus, there is absolutely nothing inconsistent in punishing violent acts and condemning vicious speech even while we protect individual liberty even to the point of permitting the most hateful of chants and slogans. We can and should call out fellow citizens for their immoral and hateful exhortations. We can and should discredit hateful movements. But that’s not a call for censorship; it’s a call for cultural self-control. Black Lives Matter shouldn’t be banned, but many of its supporters should be ashamed, and the rest of our culture should unite in rejecting their extremism.

Who really has blood on their hands? The killer and anyone who helped him. Who should feel guilt and shame? Each and every Twitter troll or Black Lives Matter marcher who called for violence and blood on the streets. For those people, sunlight is the best disinfectant. They should be relentlessly exposed and discredited. And any movement that harbors them, that marches with them, or excuses their rage as somehow “understandable” or “justifiable” or “predictable” should be rejected.

Surely the Left will agree. After all, if they were willing to condemn Sarah Palin without evidence, surely they’ll reject Black Lives Matter extremism with evidence. After all, when “you’ve been feeding this hatred, this division . . . you feed it, you encourage it . . . something’s going to happen.” Something has happened. And it keeps happening. Will the rhetoric change?

— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review. 

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