The Corner

The Ethics of Rhetoric in Ferguson

In response to Duncan to Full Senate

As usual, my colleague Charlie makes a sharp, right-minded argument against today’s “attempt[s] to indict the entire post-Ferguson activist movement” for the shooting of two Ferguson police officers yesterday evening. Charlie’s points are well-taken, but I find his criticisms a touch too sweeping.

That “society is to blame” is not the contention here (at least, it is not mine; I will not speak for the oft-hyperbolic Twitter horde). Rather, what has transpired since Michael Brown’s death in August is a concerted effort by specific people in specific places at specific times to perpetuate a narrative that is, and was, demonstrably largely untrue, and which has informed, or accompanied, efforts among some of those same people to deliberately gin up racial anger, and/or fear, to foment the particular form of change they would like to see.

The specificity and demonstrability of this “culture” of agitation is important. Charlie suggests that the Right’s condemnation in this instance is akin to the Left’s condemnation of Sarah Palin for the 2011 shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. But of course the latter was bunk; there was not a shred of evidence to suggest that Sarah Palin ever crossed Jared Loughner’s mind. The Left’s Butterfly Effect–approach to political violence — Sarah Palin flaps her gums here, and domestic terrorism rains down halfway across the country — is not the case here, where specific anti-cop rhetoric has been perpetrated by persons of influence in local communities, in the media, and in government — and there is no question that it has been taken up by many of the protesters recently on streets from Los Angeles to New York City. Asserting the importance of not blaming the actions of lunatics on the martial language of politicians need not preclude our ability to differentiate between actual and made-up atmospheres of excitement.

If I understand him correctly, Charlie — even if he would concede the above — erects a wall here between rhetoric and action. “Violent” language is not violence. That is true, but it elides the mysterious way in which words work on us. “We shall fight on the beaches…” bucked up wilting spirits. It is not that rhetoric “justifies” any shooting; it is that it creates an atmosphere that makes such events more likely.

And that means that there is, as Richard Weaver said, an “ethics of rhetoric” of which we must be vigilant. That puts me at least slightly odds with Charlie (always a dangerous place to be) on two last issues: freedom of speech, and the moral autonomy of last night’s shooter.

We can defend freedom of speech while also recognizing that certain speech does not contribute to the health of the body politic. Even were the narrative of these protesters completely accurate, that would not automatically excuse certain expressions.

That is, as is this last point, a distinction between rule of law (the importance of which Charlie rightly insists) and moral responsibility. We can — and should — maintain that the shooter is fully legally responsible for his actions. But to insist that he was a completely autonomous moral actor suggests that he was acting in some sort of moral vacuum — which no one does. In this sense, then, we may be obliged to expand our sense of “guilt” beyond the individual who pulled the trigger.

This is, though, a subtle distinction, and one that requires a great deal of qualification and generosity when discussing. Since neither of those is regularly welcome on cable news or Twitter, drawing this distinction may be more dangerous than its benefits justify.

Still, we do well to remember that there are moral questions that a polity must address that can never be adjudicated by the law, and who is really to blame in Ferguson may be one such question.

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