Thursday, November 02, 2006

Assigning Blame

A commenter a couple of days ago provided the following assessment of Rush Limbaugh:

Rush is a cretinous piece of contaminated dingo stool. And that is my polite opinion.

Though I doubt if the proposition is literally true, I agree with the idea that I think the author was trying to convey. Limbaugh is an evil person. Harm and suffering follow in his wake. The number of good people whose lives have been made better by Rush's actions is so heavily outweighed by the number of good people whose lives were made worse. And a great many bad people (people inclined to act in ways that are similarly harmful to the same good people) are obtaining rewards in this world because of Rush, compounding his power to do evil.

He is a bad man.

Having said this, I want to remind the readers of the proposition I have defended that the only legitimate response to words are counter-words and private action; violence is never an appropriate response for people who do evil through words alone.

Yet, that is exactly what I want to talk about in this post - private action.

Because the fault does not rest with Rush Limbaugh alone. The fault rests with those who reward Rush Limbaugh and his kind.

I have spoken quite a bit in this blog about how morality is concerned with using praise and condemnation. Praise is rationally used to promote character traits that tend to fulfill the desires of others, while condemnation is rationally applied to inhibiting character traits that thwart the desires of others.

One of the greatest perversions in this society is that people like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Bill O'Reilly are rewarded, when they exhibit character traits that are so harmful to others - character traits that rational people have more reason to discourage than encourage.

It is not rational to limit our criticism just to Rush Limbaugh. The criticism applies to anybody who listens to his radio show, buys his books, pays a fee to attend a speech, or purchases advertising time on any publication or broadcast he is a part of. Anybody who commits any of these acts is acting so as to promote and encourage people to adopt the character traits that Rush Limbaugh exhibits. These people are sending out a social signal that Rush Limbaugh is the type of person who is to be seen as an example for others to follow. It sends a message to every child in the country, "If you wish wealth, power, and public acclaim, then you will model yourself after this man."

That is worse than stupid.

Those who are critical of the deeds of people such as this tend to blame the agent. We criticize Limbaugh and Colter and O'Reilly. However, in a sense, we are blaming the messenger. These people are (though not entirely) servants fulfilling a public demand. The proper focus of our attention should include (or, to put it another way, should cease to ignore) those who are demanding such a vile and destructive service. Without such a demand, supply would dry up - and we can go about living more peaceful and productive lives.

Even the likes of Limbaugh, Colter, and O'Reilly would likely change their tone and their message if they discovered that their previous message did not sell as well. If they saw their ratings slip and their audience turning away towards commenter who, for example, respected the truth, then they, too, might decide to try to get some audience back by showing a greater respect for the truth themselves. That, itself, would start to make the world a better place.

However, this starts, not with targeting the likes of Limbaugh. It starts with targeting their audience. It starts with telling these people, honestly and directly, "You are making this country worse because you are promoting intellectual recklessness, basic dishonesty, and unfounded hate as basic broadcast and publication standards in this country. You, the audience and advertisers for these broadcasts, are the cause of the problem. Limbaugh and his kind are the tools you are using in carrying out this destruction."

There is no denying that this is actually a 'feedback system' - a vicious downward spiral. Hate-filled people with no respect for truth turn to broadcasters such as Limbaugh, who promote more hate-filled people with no respect for truth, who turn to broadcasters such as Limbaugh in greater numbers. And so it goes.

My writing here is not to deny that such a feedback exists and to put the blame entirely on the audience. It is, instead, to argue against what appears to be the habit of putting the blame entirely on the broadcaster - to assert that the audience is also to blame.

In saying this, I am certainly not saying that a person should only read or listen to those that they already agree with. In fact, I discourage that as well. After spending six years thinking that libertarianism was such an obviously true set of propositions that no rational person could question it, I sought out criticisms, and found out that libertarianism has significant flaws.

We can learn things when we study those who present views that conflict with our own.

However, it does not take much time or effort to determine whether one is reading a critic with a respect for the truth who is trying to take care to raise honest objections to the view he is criticizing. The evidence against the idea that people such as Limbaugh fit in this category has been overwhelming for years. It is more than past time to move past these people to those who do offer intelligent and honest criticism.

Every person who purchases a book, listens to a broadcast, or pays for advertising on any show or publication from any of these kinds of people, is contributing to the problem - is feeding the problem, not solving it.

Some will cast this as an argument against free speech. It is not. These people are free to speak as much as they want. However, we have a right to turn our attention elsewhere - away from them and to those who present honest and reasoned discussion of the issues.

As I have argued, a right to freedom of speech is not a right to freedom from criticism or an obligation on the part of others to listen. It is a right against having one's words met with violence - whether it be the private violence like that of a bunch of Islamic fundamentalists shouting 'Death to the infidels', or the public violence of a government prohibition on the speech in question. I do not advocate private violence or legal penalties - and, in fact, I condemn both.

What I call for instead is the voluntary exercise of one's right to choose who to listen to and what to buy - and to condemn (not to punish through law - not to violently harm - but to state disapproval of and withhold voluntary commerce from) those who make society worse than it would otherwise be.

And this includes the voluntary exercise of one's right to choose to condemn and withhold commerce from those who support (as listeners and readers) people who are making society worse than it would otherwise be.


beepbeepitsme said...

Oooops. That was me.

I realize it wasn't a constructive comment, but I find it difficult to even attempt a constructive criticism of someone like Rash Limpballs and Ann Cooties.

They have absolutely no intention of "playing fair", as doing so would deprive them of the multi-million dollar businesses they have constructed around themselves by being professional ar*eholes.

The distubing thing is that both of these people must be saying things that a large % of the american public want to hear. This is a realization that I find most disturbing, and frankly, I just can't comprehend it.

As you can see, I failed once again to be even remotely polite in my assessment of them and I was only minimally constructive in my criticism of them.

Chris said...

One nitpick: you characterize "shouting 'Death to the infidels'" as an act of "private violence". Shouting is not an act of violence. Depending on the audience, it may be a threat of violence, an exhortation to others to commit a violent act or even both at once, but it is not itself an act of violence. In Jefferson's words, it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

Just as Limbaugh's right to free speech does not protect him from criticism from you and me, the Danish cartoonists' right to free speech does not protect them from criticism from Muslims or anyone else who takes offense at the viewpoint embodied in those cartoons.

"Should the right to free speech extend to threats?" is a difficult question - not least because of the issue of who decides what is and is not a threat, and based on what standards - but exploration of this question is not well served by blurring the line between speech and action. The US constitution defines treason exclusively in terms of an "overt Act", partly to avoid creating a category of "wrong speech" that can then become nebulous and used to intimidate any speech that is unwelcome to those in power.

It is important to maintain the distinction between speech - the expression of a viewpoint - and violent action, which results in actual injury.