Once we have reinstated this distinction between words and violence, we might then move on to consider the question of how the one can lead to the other. This is perhaps the most compelling argument for restrictions on speech. If it can be determined that certain forms of speech incite violence, then there is a case to be made that responsibility is thereby shared between the perpetrator of the crime and the individual who provoked it.
The Rwandan genocide of 1994 is frequently cited in order to demonstrate a causal relationship between speech and violence. The RTLM radio broadcasts that called on Hutus to “cut down the tall trees,” and described the Tutsi minority as “cockroaches” and “snakes”—dehumanising language reminiscent of the Nazi propaganda that depicted Jews as rats—are said to be culpable in the stirring up of a maelstrom of hatred that resulted in the murder of almost a million people.
Incitement to violence has always been an offence under English common law, but the definition has also been open to subjective interpretation. At what point might we claim that a criminal’s individual responsibility is shared by those who inspired it, and how is this to be quantified? There is no human act that could not be said to have been prompted to a degree by some external influence, and there is no penalty for a criminal that might not be mitigated through appeal to extenuating circumstances outlined by a honey-tongued defence lawyer. This is why so many find the notion of personal responsibility intuitively reasonable; it has the effect of tidying up an otherwise messy business.
Yet these are complicated matters that are unlikely to be resolved with binary thinking. If we as a society wish to legislate against speech that has the potential to incite violence, we need to consider how such influences can be proven and to what extent they exist at all. After Brenda Spencer went on a shooting spree at San Diego’s Grover Cleveland Elementary School in 1979, she reportedly explained her actions by saying, “I don’t like Mondays.” If we were to take this on trust, would there be a case for outlawing Mondays on the grounds that the day incites violence?
This may seem flippant, but the principle stands. In the history of human conflict—which is to say the history of humanity—there have been no intentional acts of violence bereft of impetus. These are as varied as the imagination will allow: an alarming report on the evening news; a misspoken word from a family member; an overheard conversation in a pub. You can be sure that any conceivable phenomenon has, at some point or other, triggered a reaction in those predisposed to act violently.
In the wake of the terrorist atrocity in New Zealand in March 2019—in which a far-right terrorist murdered fifty-one Muslim worshippers and injured another forty—angry students accosted Chelsea Clinton, daughter of former president Bill Clinton, claiming that the massacre had been “stoked by people like you.” Newspaper columnist Owen Jones was quick to point out that the killer had recently shared an article from the Daily Express on social media, implying that the publication was somehow partly responsible for his actions. Although these could be well-meaning attempts to explain the inexplicable, they are no less tenuous than blaming JD Salinger for the death of John Lennon on the grounds that the murderer cited The Catcher in the Rye as his manifesto.
In spite of the temptation to resort to easy formulas in order to make sense of horrific acts of violence, it is neither desirable nor possible to exist in a society in which the potential to influence is regarded as a crime in and of itself. There are virtually no acts that can be undertaken in isolation from cultural factors, and any attempt to connect the dots from crime to catalyst is bound to lead us into a fog of speculation.
Surely, however, when the intention to incite violence is beyond doubt, we are right to conclude that responsibility ought to be shared. Consider the hypothetical scenario of a demagogue standing before a doting crowd. By the cheers and applause, we can tell that his words have had an invigorating effect. He singles out a man on the front row and calls on the crowd to attack him. Within minutes, he is dead.
While it would be folly to formulate hate-speech legislation on the basis of such exceptional circumstances, it does raise the question of the degree to which authority figures should be blamed for the crimes of their followers. Charles Manson, for example, was convicted for the series of murders in 1969 committed by members of his cult. The extent to which officers at Auschwitz should be held culpable for following orders, otherwise known as the “Nuremberg defence,” is a longstanding feature of ethical debates. On reflection, one would be hard pushed not to conclude that the responsibility lies with those who gave the orders as well as those who carried them out.
Our hypothetical scenario is slightly different, insofar as our murderers have not been following orders from an individual who has direct authority over them, but rather have been energised by his words. In this case, the distinction one must draw is between those who are inspired and those who act on that inspiration. Unlike a soldier who is commanded to carry out atrocities and punished severely if he refuses, our hypothetical lynch mob have made a free choice. Without the threat of punitive repercussions, our agency is not diminished by pressure to conform.
In the end, we have to consider which is more harmful to society: a minority who would seek to incite violence against their fellow citizens, or a state that has been empowered to set the limits of permissible thought and speech. On balance, I suspect that those of us who know a thing or two about history will settle on the latter.
The obvious counter-argument is the impact of propaganda; few would deny that the actions of Joseph Goebbels fuelled the climate of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, or that the “tall trees” broadcasts in Rwanda were made in an effort to galvanise hatred. Yet again we find ourselves in the position of mitigating the personal responsibility of the assailants on the basis that they have experienced a kind of brainwashing, an assumption that human beings are readily deprived of their will by the manipulation of others. Such a proposition may or may not have merit, although it is worth noting that studies have revealed that propaganda only works if the pre-existing beliefs of the recipients are already aligned with the message.
In his overview of evidence from experimental psychology, for instance, Hugo Mercier notes that “religious proselytizing, propaganda, advertising, and so forth are generally not very effective at changing people’s minds” and that “beliefs that lead to costly behaviour are even less likely to be accepted.” Even in the case of Nazi Germany, propaganda against Jews had the effect of exacerbating existing prejudices. In areas with low levels of anti-Semitism, propaganda had the reverse impact. This tells us that incitement to violence only occurs if the anterior circumstances have generated a climate of susceptibility. As Gordon Danning has pointed out, the academic consensus shows that hate speech does not in itself create hatred. Rather, it places “an imprimatur of official approval on acts of violence,” thereby “making people who are already hateful and prone to violence believe that they can get away with acting violently.”
On incitement to violence, as with all complex moral issues, we should all be open to persuasion. At the same time, we must be wary of those who mistake their own arguments for proof. The connection between unfettered speech and violence is now taken by many to be self-evident, which, in turn, makes the case for hate speech irrefutable. This is to reach a conclusion intuitively and work backwards. It is exemplified by the current movement in the United States to see that hate speech is exempt from First Amendment protection.
For instance, in an article for the New York Times entitled Free Speech Is Killing Us, Andrew Marantz asserts that “noxious language online is causing real-world violence.” He goes on to claim that “this fact implies a question so uncomfortable that many of us go to great lengths to avoid asking it. Namely, what should we—the Government, private companies or individual citizens—be doing about it?” It should go without saying that Marantz’s strategy of recasting his argument as a “fact” does not automatically render it ironclad. The uncomfortable questions that he poses are redundant if the premise is flawed, but he has made no effort to establish whether or not this might be the case. Similarly, “hate speech is not free speech” is a common theme on social media, but the repetition of slogans does not make them true.
This belief in a direct causal link between forms of expression and violent crime should be interrogated, not least because it is already informing various governments’ justifications for hate-speech legislation and politicians’ pleas for the moderation of language in the media and in parliament. During a UK House of Commons debate in September 2019, Labour politician Paula Sherriff invoked the memory of Jo Cox—a member of parliament who had been murdered by a far-right extremist in June 2016—in order to criticise prime minister Boris Johnson’s “pejorative language.”
“We stand here under the shield of our departed friend with many of us in this place subject to death threats and abuse every single day,” Sherriff said. “Let me tell the prime minister they often quote his words—’surrender act,’ ‘betrayal,’ ‘traitor’—and I for one am sick of it. We must moderate our language and it has to come from the prime minister first.” In this, she was echoing Marantz’s view that “ideas can slide so precipitously into terror.” In the same debate, her colleague Jess Phillips revealed that she had received a death threat in which the prime minister’s words had been quoted. But this is no proof of causality; it is merely proof that the individual who wrote the letter is capable of quotation.
The roots of this belief are probably ideological. As I have noted, present-day social justice activists share an abiding faith in the putative nexus of language and power, largely derived from the French postmodernists of the 1960s and 1970s. However, these same activists are often at the forefront of calling for the censorship of the arts, an impulse which we can trace to the thinkers of the Frankfurt School—Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, et al.—for whom popular culture and entertainment were seen as distractions from the revolutionary project. I see in the identity-obsessed activism of today a blend of these two positions, one which reduces humanity to a passive and malleable species, eternally subject to the tides of circumstance.
Popular culture, then, becomes a means of social control, which is why “representation” and sending the “correct” moral message are seen as so crucial. But artists are by no means obliged to provide moral instruction, either through their lives or their work. Furthermore, to judge art by how effectively it reinforces contemporary ethical standards is entirely to misapprehend its purpose. I am reminded of Oscar Wilde’s observation in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890): “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”
The assumption that various forms of popular entertainment—from gory films and television to gangster rap and drill music—have the capacity to incite violence has long been a staple of tabloid sensationalism. It was the core argument of Mary Whitehouse’s “Clean Up TV” campaign in the mid-1960s. It was the rationale behind the seizure of so-called “video nasties” in the early 1980s, which, according to the England and Wales director of public prosecutions at the time, had the capacity “to deprave and corrupt, or make morally bad, a significant proportion of the likely audience.” It is why Danny Boyle’s film Trainspotting (1996) was accused of glamourising drug use. It explains the near-hysterical campaigning of the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard to have David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) banned in the UK, on the grounds that it was “beyond the bounds of depravity.”
More recently, the movie Joker (2019) was widely decried for its potentially harmful influence on impressionable young men. One critic described it as “a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels” whose director, Todd Phillips, “lacks the discipline or nuance to responsibly handle such hazardous material.” This tone is reminiscent of the Sunday Express reviewer who wrote of Radclyffe Hall’s book The Well of Loneliness (1928), “I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.”
For all this catastrophising, six decades of research into “media-effects” theories has provided no secure evidence of a general correlation between public behaviour and mass-media consumption, with the “direct-effects model” being comprehensively discredited. Such effects are only ever indirect and based on individual personality traits, social circumstances, and moral character. This is not to suggest that there is no debate to be had regarding our susceptibility to propaganda, advertising or persuasion, or indeed that the media and the arts do not have a significant impact on culture. But the idea of a passive public acting mechanically on cues from politicians, journalists and artists appears to have little basis in reality.
In any case, I do not share the view that to restrict speech necessarily diminishes the spread of ideas. We have all heard of the “Streisand effect,” whereby attempts at censorship and suppression inadvertently draw more attention to the offending material. Whenever I hear demands for a book to be banned, my first thought is invariably: “How can I get hold of a copy?”
The same principle applies to disinformation. The term “fake news” is now often deployed as a strategy to delegitimise alternative viewpoints. But even in cases where deception is unambiguously the motive, censorship usually has the unintended effect of accelerating the dissemination of the material in question. Many purveyors of “fake news” rely on the narrative that they are brave truth-tellers fighting back against oppressive forces who would see them silenced. It is therefore far better to discredit false testimony than to suppress it and thereby re-enforce disingenuous claims to victimhood.
When it comes to calls for censorship, we must always return to the same question: Who are to be the censors, and how might they be expected to reach objective decisions on the basis of fundamentally subjective standards? Moreover, if speech has the power to corrupt, how can we be sure that exposure to toxic material will not corrupt the censors?
Reprinted, with permission, from Free Speech And Why It Matters, by Andrew Doyle. © Andrew Doyle, 2021. Published by Constable, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group. Andrew Doyle is a writer, comedian, and self-described “good friend of @TitaniaMcGrath.” Follow him on Twitter at @andrewdoyle_com.
Featured image: A portion of The Demagogue, by painter José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949).