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On Freedom of Speech and Incitement to Violence

by Izzy Kalman (October 2007)I’m sure many of my readers wonder why I deal with political matters in a newsletter that is seemingly about psychological matters. The truth is that the separation between psychology and politics is an artificial one. All political actions are psychological actions because they involve human behavior. And while psychology is certainly part of political science curriculum, politics is not part of psychology curriculum. Unfortunately, this lack of education on the part of psychological scientists has serious and even catastrophic results. Because the psychological sciences think politics belong to a different realm, our psychological organizations freely engage in political activism without considering the possibility that doing so may be bad psychology. Meanwhile, they remain silent about political actions that can lead to our destruction because they don’t realize those actions are the realm of psychology. So they get involved where they shouldn’t and don’t get involved where they should.

The most consequential ignorance is regarding Freedom of Speech. Did you ever learn about Freedom of Speech in a psychology course? Neither did I. In fact, I don’t recall having had any substantial instruction about Freedom of Speech in all of my formal education. Just about all I learned is that it is in First Amendment. Because our psychology experts don’t understand the psychology of Freedom of Speech–that it is actually the solution to verbal bullying, they are busy lobbying for anti-bullying laws that make it a crime to insult people–speech that is protected by Freedom of Speech. And they simultaneously remain silent about leaders who use words to incite violence–speech that is not protected by Freedom of Speech.

Why I am writing about Freedom of Speech again

Several weeks ago, my wife Miriam, upon reading about acts of anti-Semitic vandalism subsequent to Iranian President Ahmed Ahmedinejad’s talk at Columbia University, asked me to write an article about it. She wanted me to promote her own agenda, for, as an Israeli-born Jew, it seemed to her a travesty that a national leader who calls for the destruction of Israel and blames Jews for all the world’s problems should be invited to speak under the rubric of Freedom of Speech.

While, as a good Jewish husband, I try to do everything my wife tells me, I thought this was one request I would decline. First of all, why deal with international affairs I have no control over? Secondly, I am a firm supporter of Freedom of Speech as a great psychological policy. My initial intuition was that we could handle Ahmadinejad’s words–that we need not fear a university offering him a podium to air his views. And maybe we might even be able to learn something from him.

To my surprise, for a completely different reason, I have ended up obeying my wife. But not only to write about Iran’s leader but our own as well.

The danger of warfare

Our psychological organizations have taken it upon themselves to create a safer society by lobbying for laws that make the government responsible for eliminating harassment and bullying from society. Now, what is a greater danger to human welfare: harassment and bullying, or warfare?

I believe most thinking people would say the latter. Personally, I’ll take harassment and bullying over warfare any day. Warfare, especially in the age of modern technology, has the potential of destroying life on the planet.

Our Founding Fathers knew the destructiveness of war, and recognized that the number one responsibility of any government is to protect its citizens from attack by other countries. They also understood that the greatest bully of all is government. Therefore, they created a Constitution designed specifically to limit both the ability of government to bully its citizens as well to engage in gratuitous warfare.

The danger of intervention

Robert Heinlein, one of the great science fiction writers of the twentieth century, remarked in his novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, that 80% of the world’s misery results from getting involved in other people’s business. Our Founding Fathers, too, recognized this simple wisdom. So they instructed that the role of the military should be to protect us from outside attack, but not to get involved in the disputes between other nations; doing so endangers not only our own people, it is likely to escalate the wars they join.

Our Founding Fathers understood what our social scientists apparently don’t: the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. When we try to make others get along better, it only makes matters worse. If you are a parent intervening in the battles between your children, you should notice that the fighting escalates. If you are a teacher or principal trying to protect victims from bullies, you are likely to experience an escalation in bullying. And if you are government trying to bring peace to the Middle East, you will notice how futile and counter-productive your efforts are.

Our Constitution was meant to be a model for the rest of the world, and the truth is that if all nations followed the guidelines of our Founding Fathers, there would be no warfare. Imagine if every nation were only concerned with protecting itself from attack but did not attack others. Know what you’d get? Peace among nations!

A Lesson on Freedom of Speech

Getting back to how I came to do my wife’s bidding. A couple of weeks ago, I read in the news about outrage over Imus’ being rehired. (I wrote in depth about the Imus affair several months ago.) I thought to myself, My God, why don’t we learn any lessons on Freedom of Speech in this country? Our academic institutions are busy promoting hypersensitivity to insults while inviting people like Ahmadinejad who are inciting violence! However, I quickly came to realize that it is not only Ahmadinejad that is engaging in Constitutionally forbidden speech. So are our own leaders! And they have been doing it before Ahmedinejad!

To fully understand Freedom of Speech, we need to view it within the context of the entire set of laws that govern us. Our Founding Fathers were not fools. They were wise people who understood that Freedom of Speech was a necessary ingredient for creating a strong, healthy society that maximizes human happiness and harmony.

This is what Freedom of Speech means (the following is not a complete list):

Our government does not permit killing; killing causes objective harm to people. We cannot live in harmony if killing is legal.

Our government does not permit theft; theft causes objective harm to people. We cannot live in harmony if theft is legal.

Our government does not permit rape: rape causes objective harm to people. We cannot live in harmony if rape is legal.

Our government does not permit assault and battery: assault and battery cause objective harm to people. We cannot live in harmony if assault and battery are legal.

But (and this is where Freedom of Speech enters the picture)–our government DOES permit us to say offensive words. Offensive words do not cause objective harm to people. We cannot live in harmony if it is a crime to say offensive words.

In simple terms, Freedom of Speech is the Constitutional version of the “sticks and stones” slogan. It means words are only words, and you don’t get punished for words. Words don’t chop off people’s heads and they don’t make people’s houses blow up. Words have the potential to hurt people’s feelings, and our government guarantees we won’t be punished for saying things that hurt people’s feelings. If you say something I don’t like and I get upset, I actually upset myself. Why should you get punished if I upset myself? If it were a crime to hurt people’s feelings, we had better stop talking because virtually anything we say can hurt the feelings of someone, somewhere. I would bet that every one of my readers has at one time said something they though was helpful, only to discover that it hurt someone’s feelings. If it were a crime to hurt people’s feelings, we would be calling the police on each other whenever our feelings were hurt. This would result in a totalitarian police state that oversees our minutest interactions with each other.

Limitations to Freedom of Speech

But Freedom of Speech does not protect all speech. It only permits speech that can hurt people’s feelings, but it does not permit speech that can cause objective harm to people’s bodies, possessions or liberty. I am not allowed to yell fire in a crowded theater. That will make people stampede and trample each other. I am not allowed to make up lies about my colleagues and get them fired because that hurts their ability to make a living. I am not allowed to make verbal threats of violence, for instance, “Give me your money or I’ll break your nose.”

And–I am finally getting to the point of this article– FREEDOM OF SPEECH DOES NOT PERMIT INCITEMENT TO VIOLENCE.

Verbally inciting others to commit violence is forbidden by our Constitution. And here is the great violation that no one–and I mean no one– is talking about: Incitement to violence by our nations’ leaders.

The power of leaders

Who incites violence? Leaders do. Leaders, by definition, are people whom others follow. When leaders tell people what to do, many people do it. And the worst acts of violence in the world have been incited by leaders.

If some Joe Shmoe in the street stands on a soapbox and declares, “Group X is our mortal enemy! They are evil! They are representatives of the Devil. If you kill them, you will go to heaven!” no one is going to go out and do what he says. We will simply see the speaker for the crackpot that he is. He may be a good candidate for psychotherapy or medication, and we might be concerned that he, himself, is intending to engage in violence against Group X. But he is not guilty of incitement to violence because no sane person is going to go and commit murder because of him.

However, if a leader announces, “Group X is our mortal enemy. They are evil! They are representatives of the Devil. If you kill them, you will go to heaven!” that is an entirely different matter. People will listen to him and go out and kill members of Group X. Such speech is not protected by Freedom of Speech. Incitement to violence is equivalent to violence. If you incite violence, you are guilty of that violence.

When Osama bin Laden says that American infidels should die, many of his followers strap on suicide belts and commit mass murder. Bin Laden’s pronouncements are not covered by Freedom of Speech.

When Hitler announces that the Jews are vermin who should be exterminated, Europeans eagerly embark on genocide. Hitler’s speech is not protected by Freedom of Speech.

When Ahmed Ahmadinejad declares that Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth and blames Jews for the world’s problems, many people eagerly wait for the opportunity to attack Israel and Jews. When Columbia University invites him to give a speech to its students under the rubric of Freedom of Speech, it is giving a microphone to someone who is inciting violence.

Our leaders are also guilty

Pursuing this line of thought, it suddenly hit me that Ahmadinejad is not the only one engaging in inflammatory speech. Some of the best examples are much closer to home. In fact, Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric may ultimately be a reaction of our own leaders’ inflammatory speech–violence-inciting speech that should not be protected by Freedom of Speech.

Ahmadinejad does not make his statements in a vacuum. When US leaders declare that Saddam Hussein and Ahmed Ahmadinejad are modern day Hitlers and that their countries belong to an Axis of Evil, why do you think our leaders do it? They do it literally and intentionally to incite violence. They are emotionally preparing our citizenry to be willing at a moment’s notice to take up arms, fly to another country, and blow their people to smithereens. After all, evil people should be destroyed. And who better to kill them than virtuous young bully-hating American men and women, armed with the largest and most technologically advanced arsenal on the planet?

The question of whether Saddam Hussein or Ahmed Ahmadinejad are evil is irrelevant. These people may indeed be evil–in stark contrast to our own saintly leaders, of course–but to say so out loud is to take a concrete step toward actual violence. “Evil” may be the most dangerous insult you can call anyone because it means they deserve to die and anyone who kills them is doing good. What are that country’s leaders supposed to think? “Oh, we’re evil. We had better stop listening to the Devil and obey the United States instead because they have God on their side. Anyway, they are so big and strong and we are so small and weak.” Of course not. They will want to show us–and especially their own people–that we are not their boss, that we can’t tell them what to do. Thus, they will become increasingly determined to resist and fight us.

And what do you think their citizens are going to think? Imagine that the leader of the most powerful country in the world declares your country to be evil. Are you going to shout for joy? You will be mortified! That powerful country now sees you as an enemy of humanity and will feel perfectly justified blowing you and your family to Kingdom Come! Could you be blamed for wanting to strap on a suicide belt and blow up Americans?

Woe to us for abandoning the wisdom of our Founding Fathers. They provided us with a model Constitution they hoped would be emulated by the rest of the world so that we would all be able to live in peace. They permitted us to say what we wish, to criticize and insult each other and even our own government, but not to incite violence. And they warned us against getting involved militarily in the affairs of other countries. But instead of heeding their warnings, we have made ourselves the world’s policeman. And our military policies are having about as much success in bringing peace to the world as our anti-bullying policies are having in bringing peace to our schools.

We all want to live in peace. To do this, we need to start educating our population in the understanding and application of Freedom of Speech. We need to worry less about hurting people’s feelings and worry more about incitement to violence. We can’t allow our leaders to address the nations of the world like enemies and expect them to treat us like friends.

One last word, in case you accuse me of being a lefty pacifist who believes we should let other countries do whatever they want to us. The most basic responsibility of a government is to protect its people from attack by other countries. However, the best way to start is by applying the Golden Rule, which instructs us to treat others like friends–even when they treat us like enemies. Our attitude to other nations should be, “We love you; you are our fellow living creatures. We want you to be as happy and healthy as we would like ourselves to be, but we can’t allow you hurt us. If necessary, we will–with the most profound regret–do what is necessary to protect ourselves from you. If you attempt to destroy us, we will do our best to destroy you first. But we do not ever want to be in this position. It will always be to the benefit of both our peoples to work out our disputes without violence. We do not want to incite our people against you, and please don’t incite your people against us.”

Look how upset we get today when a politician makes a stupid racial remark. We act as though he committed a capital offense even though no one will suffer any objective damage. How much more so should we become outraged when our leaders call other leaders and nations evil. If we were to let leaders–including our own–know that calling others evil is a crime, and that we will throw them out of office even faster than for making a racial joke, we wouldn’t have so much bloodshed in the world.

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