Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Freedom of Expression: "It is unacceptable to think . . ."

I fear that MSNBC commenter Kieth Olbermann is going down the same road that created the likes of Ann Coulter. This path began when Olbermann went into a rant against President Bush that earned him a lot of praise. That must have felt good. This 'positive reinforcement' induced him to do this again -- for which he obtained more praise.

So, he wants to do it again.

This requires that Bush does something that Olbermann can rant against. If Bush does not cooperate, then the next best thing is to distort and twist something that Bush says into something he can rant against.

The 'left' will not mind. The 'left' will accept his interpretation simply because they enjoy rants against Bush, and Olbermann will get his praise, even if his rant is substantially dishonest.

I want to note that I am not accusing Olbermann of conscience deception. Rather, he probably chose to twist Bush's words because, when he thought about this interpretation and what he could do with it, the thought 'felt good' to him. He then mistook this good feeling (anticipation of praise) with accuracy and moral legitimacy.

He was wrong.

Here are the specifics:

Colin Powell sent a letter to Senator John McCain regarding the treatment of detainees. In this letter, Powell wrote, "The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism."

When Bush was asked at a press conference to respond to this statement, Bush said:

If there is any comparison between the compassion and decency of the American People, and the terrorist tactics of extremists, it's flawed logic. I simply can't accept that. It's unacceptable to think that there is any kind of comparison between the behavior of the United States of America and the action of Islamic extremists who kill innocent women and children to achieve an objective.

Olbermann then went from this to accuse the President of saying, "It is unacceptable to think."

What all of us will agree on is that we have the right, we have the duty, to think about the comparison. And most importantly that the other guy whose opinion about this we cannot phathom has exactly the same right as we do to think and say what his mind and his heart and his conscience tell him is right. All of us agree about that. Except, it seems, this President.

In this, Olbermann took Bush’s words out of context and twisted them into something that he could rant against – to the cheers of his audience who, like him, cares less for truth than they do for the fact that the can express self-righteous rage. Bush did not say, ‘It is unacceptable to think.” Bush's words, instead, are consistent with the proposition, “We can judge a person’s moral character by what they say, and some things allow us to judge a person’s character harshly.”

It is a proposition that happens to be true.

In fact, it is perfectly legitimate to condemn a person because of what they say and think. If a person were to say, "All niggers are nothing but a bunch of overly educated baboons," then this person deserves to be condemned as a bigot. Condemning him does not say that he has no right to his opinion. It says only that his opinion is not right -- not factually right, and not morally right.

The right to freedom of expression IS NOT a right to be free from condemnation and criticism for what one says or thinks. If it was, then all expressions of condemnation and criticism would have to be prohibited, which contradicts the very idea of freedom of expression. This interpretation of the concept of ‘freedom of expression’ is entirely incoherent.

The right to freedom of expression is, in fact, an obligation on the part of others to limit their response to condemnation, criticism, and the free expression of their private acts. By 'free expression of their private acts' I refer to private decisions such as who to date, who to marry, who to invite over to one's home for dinner, who to socialize with after work, and who to vote for or against.

The right to freedom of expression prohibits a violent response (which includes criminal sanctions) to somebody else's words, while permitting non-violent condemnation.

So, when Muslims respond to Pope Benedict XVI's speech or a group of cartoons with condemnation, that is legitimate. They are even permitted to demonstrate their anger with peaceful, non-violent demonstrations. When President Bush responds to critics with harsh words and condemnation, this too is legitimate. Anybody who says otherwise does not understand what 'freedom of expression' means.

However, when Muslims respond to words by making death threats, by bombing churches, by murdering nuns, these people step over the limits of legitimate response to (what they see as) offensive and contemptible speech. If President Bush should demand that legal penalties be applied to those who disagree with him, then this would be beyond the limits of legitimate response to speech that he does not like.

However, President Bush did not step over that line. He limited his response to harsh words of condemnation and criticism - which he has every right to do. He did not threaten to impose legal penalties against those who disagreed with him. He did not call for or sanction violence to be done with those who disagreed with him.

He did not commit the wrong that Olbermann accused him of.

At the low point in Olbermann’s speech, in a line that is comparable to Bush’s warnings about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction in its strategic rhetorical intent, makes the accusation – unjustified and unsupported – that the President is one step away from making disagreement with him a criminal offense. Specifically, Olbermann said, “we can no longer forecast what next will be said to, or about, anyone… who disagrees.”

President Bush did do something wrong – something worthy of contempt. In spite of the fact that Bush said what his head and his heart and his conscience told him was right, he was still wrong in fact, and contemptibly wrong.

President Bush twisted Powell's words into a foul distortion of what Powell said in fact, ‘bearing false witness’ against his former Secretary of State by saying that he, Powell, dared to compare America to Al-Queida. In fact, Bush makes this accusation against any dare to assert that Bush’s actions are immoral – a group that I proudly belong to.

In fact, Bush’s response above has caused me to think that Bush has come to hold a peculiar and narrow moral code. I have discovered that the best way to explain and predict Bush’s response to critics comes from the assumption that Bush has attached himself to a moral code with only one commandment; “Thou shalt not intentionally kill innocent women and children.”

This would explain why Bush thinks there is nothing wrong with torture, rendition, arbitrary arrest, indefinite imprisonment without a trial, warrantless spying, killing innocent women and children (as long as they are innocent bystanders and not intentionally targeted), and the like are all perfectly legitimate actions. None of these are examples of intentionally killing innocent women and children.

This would also explain how Bush could interpret the phrase, "beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism," to mean “accusing America of intentionally killing innocent women and children.” If intentionally killing innocent women and children is the only moral crime that exists, then accusing America of immorality must be understood as accusing Americans of intentionally killing innocent women and children.

In other words, since the Bush Administration (which Bush likes to equate with ‘America’ as if they are the same thing) is not intentionally killing innocent women and children, then it is unacceptable to think that the Bush Administration is doing anything wrong.

That’s not say that the Bush Administration is not killing of innocent women and children. It is not wrong to kill innocent women and children – it is only wrong to intentionally kill innocent women and children. A person does not do anything wrong if there just happens to be a bunch of innocent women and children standing where a person happens to be killing.

Note: Bush did not actually use the word ‘intentionally’ in his speech. I am giving him the benefit of the doubt that he left this word out inadvertently, but including it more accurately describes his attitude. I think that this is a writer’s obligation – to give another person’s words their best interpretation.

That’s not a principle that President Bush seems particularly interested in following – nor Keith Olbermann for that matter – or those people who give Bush and Olbermann praise when they score rhetorical points by distorting the words of others. Or so it seems.


D xxxx said...

I seriously enjoy Olbermann's show, but I do admit that I share some the same criticisms you have for the comment in question - I just wouldn't have been able to state my case as eloquently as you did. ;)

I read your blog daily, thanks for always giving me food for thought. Keep up the good work.


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but your arguement just doesn't add up here. You are pointing out a fallacy in Olbermanns condemnation that you then use to condemn Olbermann. You can't have it both ways. You either accept his methods or you don't, you cant' use his method to attack said method.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I criticize Olbermann on two grounds.

(1) For twisting Bush's words ("It is unacceptable to think...") into something that Bush did not say.

(2) For asserting that it is wrong to condemn somebody for thinking and saying what their head and their heart and their conscience tells them are right.

The first is a moral transgression.

The second is a false (and, in fact, incoherent) statement, as I proved in my article.

Consistent with my position that (2) is a false statement, I hold that it is sometimes permissible to condemn others when they commit certain transgressions, and I have demonstrated that Olbermann committed those transgressions, I see no contradiction.

Olbermann, on the other hand, is incoherent when he argues that it is NEVER permissible to condemn others for saying what their head and their heart and their conscience tells them is right, while he condemns others.

I argue that it is sometimes permissible, and it is permissible under those conditions where I criticize Olbermann.

If you see an inconsistency or a contradiction in my post, I need you to be more specific as to what it is.

Anonymous said...

You overlook, whether intentionally or accidentally, Olbermann's central point and the basis of his entire discussion: Bush's attempt to define certain thoughts as "unacceptable" is not merely a description, but a call for action; action which Bush, as President, is quite capable of carrying out. To label something "unacceptable" is to state that people should not accept it; in other words, that they should try to destroy it. Ideas *can* be destroyed non-violently (by persuading the people who believe in them that they are wrong and should change their beliefs), but Bush is not exactly a committed advocate of non-violence.

In other words, Olbermann interprets Bush's statement of "unacceptability" as an implicit threat (as his comments make quite clear). Considering Bush's reputation and history, I think that interpretation is reasonable.

If he had advocated Bush's assassination because he made this statement, then he would indeed have been committing the same kind of behavior that he ascribes to Bush. But that's not what he did. He merely stated his belief that Bush owes the American people an apology; while this may be an attempt to persuade Bush to do something (namely apologize), he is not trying to persuade anyone *other* than Bush to do anything, violent or otherwise.

Now, you may believe that Olbermann's interpretation of Bush is *factually wrong*, that Bush has no such intentions of intimidation or violence against people with "unacceptable" thoughts. But given Bush's history, I'd have to see some evidence. I think, based on his past behavior, that Bush will indeed use violence and intimidation against people he disagrees with; and I'm not surprised Olbermann reached the same conclusion. I don't think it's a distortion or a misrepresentation; at most, it might be a mistake about Bush's meaning and intentions.

A person does not do anything wrong if there just happens to be a bunch of innocent women and children standing where a person happens to be killing.

Please tell me I am misinterpreting this and you are not really supporting a right to fire deadly weapons blindly. Anyone using any devices or methods that are capable of deadly force has a responsibility to look at the target area and see who or what is going to be killed or destroyed *before* firing the weapon. That applies to a lone hunter, a police officer, or the U.S. or Israeli armies.

Or are you merely arguing that *Bush* believes this? That I find plausible, but it is merely one more example of his moral degeneracy.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Greetings, Chris:

I hold that it is invalid to assert that all criticism is a call to violent action, so that a person may not criticize another without being charged with advocating violence against another.

Criticism is a call for legitimate action against another and, where one is responding to words only, the only legitimate action in response is through words and private actions.

Your statement:

In other words, Olbermann interprets Bush's statement of "unacceptability" as an implicit threat (as his comments make quite clear). Considering Bush's reputation and history, I think that interpretation is reasonable.

sounds to me a lot like, "We can't wait for the smoking gun to take the form of a mushroom cloud." It is similarly lacking in any objective evidence. We need something more explicit before we are justified in calling something a threat.

Even your demand to see some evidence that Bush is not planning violence against others merely for disagreeing sounds a lot like Bush's demand to see some evidence that Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction.

In fact, there is as much 'justification' in reading an actual threat of physical harm into Bush's comments as there is in reading a "call for assassination' into Olberman's comments. That is to say, none at all.

As I said, the one thing Bush and Olbermann did have in common (other than the fact that neither made a threat of physical violence) is that both twisted the words of their opponent (Bush -> Powell; Olbermann -> Bush) in order to have something they could criticize.

On your other point:

A person does not do anything wrong if there just happens to be a bunch of innocent women and children standing where a person happens to be killing.

I am attributing this view to Bush - and I hold that his apparent acceptance of this doctrine is "merely one more example of his moral degeneracy".

Anonymous said...

Well, I don't claim to have absolute knowledge of Bush's real meaning or intention, one way or the other. I think it's clear that Bush is ardently pursuing the *power* to punish Americans who disagree with him, while shielding that action from public scrutiny; but that does not in itself imply an intention to use it in that way. Maybe he really does intend to use the most unrestrained executive power in the nation's history only against people he believes to be a danger to the country, and not against his personal or political enemies (such as people with "unacceptable" thoughts). Although I would point out that to an authoritarian mindset, that line can be hard to see; Bush seems very close to believing that any hostility to the president is automatically hostility to the country, a kind of "I am the state" mindset that could lead him into confusing self-serving behavior with genuine service to the country.

Still, it seems to me that your post accuses Olbermann of dishonesty merely because you disagree with his interpretation of Bush's remarks, and I think that this is unfair to Olbermann. If you want to disagree with Olbermann's interpretation, or even call it groundless, that is fine; but you still (I think) have the obligation to admit that _Olbermann_ honestly (even if wrongly) believes that interpretation and acts on it. It seems like half your post is based on the assumption that not only did Bush not threaten anyone, but *Olbermann believed* (or knew) that Bush wasn't threatening anyone and then (dishonestly) acted like he was.

In other words, you seem to portray (what I see as) a possible error on Olbermann's part as deceit on Olbermann's part.

But then, maybe I'm making an error in interpretation myself. Maybe you didn't mean to accuse Olbermann of anything more than intellectual recklessness - basing too large an argument on too weak a premise, because the *interpretation* of Bush's words as a threat is not sufficient to justify the kind of counterattack Olbermann used. There's something to that, and it's possible that Olbermann did overreact, but it's quite a ways from deliberate dishonesty.

I also think that someone who's a leader, and has followers, has a responsibility to think about how his followers are going to react to his words, just as someone with a gun has a responsibility to think about where the bullet is going to go. Having followers who are willing to act on your words, and even act violently on your words, makes your words dangerous in a way that most people's words are not, and I think this does impose an extra moral responsibility. Irresponsible words by me harm no one (except maybe emotionally). Irresponsible words by Bush, or the pope, or other authority figures can cause people's deaths (either by violence, or other harmful means, such as decreased condom use in AIDS-ridden countries). I don't know where Olbermann falls on this scale, but I'd guess much closer to my end than Bush or the pope's end.

You may also have a point about me (and Olbermann) being over-suspicious of Bush, but I'm reluctant to assume that Bush is acting reasonably and responsibly in any particular case, given his history of acting unreasonably and irresponsibly. I guess it comes down to the question of when does someone forfeit the right to have their actions assumed to be in good faith? I don't have a clear answer to that but I think it's a line Bush has crossed.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I adhere to the moral principle of "presumed innocent until proven guilty." I believe that the doctrine of presuming others to be guilty and then taking pre-emptive action to be a very dangerous ideology, as has been proved by the Bush Administration's use of this doctrine.

However, we do have a right to establish safeguards against the possibility of abuse, even without making accusations of actual abuse.

We have a right to institute a system of checks and balances and to condemn those who seek to violate such a system without actually waiting for proof that a President has abused his power - in the same way that you don't have to wait for a six year old to shoot his sister (accidentally) to know that it is dangerous to leave a loaded gun on the livingroom floor - or to condemn the parent who leaves a loaded gun on the living room floor (the way I condemn Bush for opposing a system of checks and balances).

As far as I am concerned, it is WORSE for Olbermann that he sincerely (though wrongly) believes his interpretation of Bush's remarks because his interpretation is so clearly wrong - just as I think that it is WORSE for Bush that he sincerely (though wrongly) believes that anybody who criticizes him is criticizing America. You are correct in saying that my accusation is not one of intentional wrongdoing, but recklessness - and I think both Olbermann and Bush are guilty.

My accusations are that (1) Olbermann's statements are false, and (2) any responsible person with a proper concern for making true statements would have known them to be false. Olbermann messed up.

As for culpability for one's words - imagine that you were to hear on the news that somebody was arrested for plotting to assassinate Bush and that he had become obsessed with Olbermann's rants -- playing them over and over again to his friends. I would argue that this could NOT be used to condemn Olbermann. He is responsible for the effects of his actions, but not to the degree that he is responsible for other people's irresponsibility.

(Note: Technically, this is known as the 'clear and present danger' crietiria - speech is a threat if it presents a 'clear and present danger' to others, such as a preson speaking to a crowd with torches and rope that the time has come to do some lynching.)

Finally, your statement about me (and Olbermann) being over-suspicious of Bush. I have no objections to suspicion. In fact, I readily express suspicion in the form of, "I have some reason to worry that 'P', and would like to have somebody look into it." I do have objections to "I have some reason to worry that 'P'; therefore, 'P'" This second option is just the type of thinking that got us into this mess in Iraq, and (I fear) may cause the Bush Administratino to attack Iran in the near future.

In fact, this rather foolish way of thinking is officially a part of Cheney's doctrine - his '1 % doctrine.' That is, "I have some reason to suspect that 'P' has a 1% chance of being true; therefore, 'P'".

That's not right. That's not at all smart.

Anonymous said...

Alonzo --

At the risk of being labeled is insufficiently concerned about the truth, or a Bush Basher, or an Olberman Zealot, I must say I cannot agree with this post.

If this quote of Bush's was the only thing one had heard him say, then one might think Olberman was over reacting. But, given Bush history this past 6 years, I think it is hard to escape the conclusion that Bush sees things in black and white. He believes his opinions are white (good), and those who disagree with him are black (bad).

So when Bush says "It is unacceptable to think...", I think a theory that demands strong consideration is that Bush really believes it is unacceptable to think the thoughts he then attributes to others.

When Olbermann says we have a duty to think about the comparison, he is right. When we as a nation have adopted the foreign policy that we've been pursuing, we should be wondering if were not lowering ourselves to the terrorists level, so to speak.

And, I think the comparison to Ann Coulter is really off the mark, even if your only point is that he may drunk on his own popularity rather than pursuing a course of reason and honesty. I think you're a little too confident about your interpretation of Olberman's motivations.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Thank you for giving me an opportunity to talk about another of Olbermann's distortions that I had cut from the original post because the post was too long.

Olbermann says that we have an obligation to think about the comparison. You echo this and say that Olbermann is right.

My question is: Where did Bush say it was wrong to think about the comparison. Bush himself was talking about the comparison, so my guess is that he was also thinking about the comparison. In fact, I think that Bush and his staff think about the comparison quite often - without any guilt or sense that this is not something they should be thinking about.

This is yet another example of attributing something to Bush that Bush did not say.

What Bush said is that, when we think about the comparison (which is perfectly legitimate), it is absurd to come to the conclusion that America is as bad as those Islamic fundamentalists who target innocent women and children.

In this, Bush is right. I do doubt that Bush is targeting innocent women and children to achieve his objectives. As I wrote, he is clearly killing innocent women and children, but he is not targeting them.

Yet, Bush is also wrong on two other matters. First, on his apparent assumption that targeting innocent women and children is the only think that we should think of as "wrong." Second, knowingly killing innocent women and children may not be as wrong as intentionally killing them, but it is still wrong.

Yes, Bush thinks that he is right and everybody else is wrong. He is arrogant and presumptive, and he uses forms of argument (thinking with his 'gut') that are notoriously unreliable, particularly when practiced by an idiot. None of this changes the fact that Olbermann took Bush's words out of context and gave them a new meaning in order to criticize Bush.

My position is that the real Bush is bad enough. We don't need to be making things up. We can go with the facts. In fact, making things up about Bush in order to criticize him, somewhat suggests that we could not find enough to criticize if we stuck with the truth.

Also, I made no comparison between Olbermann and Coulter. I said that Olbermann seems to be going down the road that created Coulter. But there is a difference between driving down a particular road and arriving at the destination.

Olbermann has plenty of time to correct his course before he gets as bad as Coulter. However, it would help if somebody would hold up a warning flag and say, "Hey, Kieth. I don't think you want to go there."