Posts Tagged ‘free speech’

It is common knowledge that political extremism is on the rise in the U.S..  I was listening to a radio broadcast in this series this morning, and the question came up of whether or not talk radio and television personalities who play to political extremes are morally responsible for the acts that some of their unbalanced listeners or viewers might do.  A case in point was the murder of George Tiller, a doctor in Kansas who Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly had several times condemned by name on the air for performing abortions. Tiller’s murderer apparently had been a fan of O’Reilly’s show.

Whether or not one thinks O’Reilly is implicated in Tiller’s death, it does seem to raise the question of whether and to what degree persons in his line of work bear responsibility for the attitudes that they model, and the overall quality of public discourse in the U.S..

My sense of things is that  people like Michael Moore and Bill O’Reilly probably don’t cause people to pick up guns unless those people are already deranged.  They do, however, signal that it is acceptable to be intolerant and abusive of people who disagree with one’s view of the world. It also encourages the polarization that is such a serious difficulty at this moment in American politics.  For these reasons it’s hard for me not to think that people who model intolerant or abusive political attitudes bear at least some responsibility for the political climate we have here.

The defense that what these folks do is all entertainment rings false to me.  I wouldn’t excuse a bully for haranguing a person in a public place on those grounds, and I don’t think the Glenn Becks of the world can get off the hook so easily either.  Even if all they wish to do is entertain, the fact is that their particular brand of entertainment has some very damaging consequences to which they ought to own up.

But if they bear responsibility, then this suggests that rhetorical activity is subject to moral constraints–perhaps not constraints on what a speech can contain in terms of ideas, but constraints on the manner in which the speech is given.  Perhaps another way to think of this is that there are moral limits to what one may do in adapting one’s speech to a particular audience.  Perhaps the notion of “pandering” captures those limits, but I’m not sure it’s the right moral category (rhetoricians, help me out).  What the talk radio people seem to me to do is something more akin, by degrees, to inciting riot. In an economic and political climate like the U.S. has right now, that seems to me to be decidedly immoral, and practically unwise.

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