Sunday, June 05, 2016

Rhetoric and Violence...

As the news of the violent anti-Trump protests in San Jose traced across my Twitter feed Friday night, I snarkily thought to myself, "Ah, I'm sure this will lead to a weeks-long conversation about the extreme rhetoric of the anti-Trump movement, just as it did for the pro-life movement."

Somewhat to my surprise, Freddie de Boer went there:

So, now I have to actually engage in the argument instead of simply snarking about it.

In short, the question is whether violence from some protesters should bring leaders to reconsider the rhetoric they use.

Are the Statements True?

In the case of Planned Parenthood, that they dismember fetuses and sell the parts for research is not in dispute. What is in dispute is:

  • Whether Planned Parenthood "profits" from these sales, putting them outside the law.
  • The moral status of the fetuses.
So, whether "selling baby parts" is true or not hinges on whether or not one considers the fetuses they dismember to be "babies" and the semantics of "selling." I certainly have my own opinions on the answers to these questions, but for the purpose of this discussion, it will suffice to say that it is consistent with the pro-life perspective.

Is Trump a fascist? I think it's clear that some of his expressed plans are closer to fascism than those of any other prominent politician in recent memory.  On the other hand, I still think it is unlikely he will be elected, and if elected, unlikely he would be able to implement the most odious parts of his agenda.

If true, would these statements justify a violent response?

As a Catholic, I have tool to work through questions like this, the Just War Doctrine (which, I think is horribly named, since it suggests that the norm is for wars to be just, when it is the opposite. "Just War" is like "Black Swan".)

In the case of abortion and Planned Parenthood, I've considered the question before.  In brief, abortion clears the "lasting, grave, and certain" bar, but not the others, notably high probability of success.

In my judgment, the case for Trump fails as well. Most notably, that not all non-violent means (e.g. voting for another candidate, constraints from the other branches of government) have been exhausted.

But are they likely to lead to a violent response?

Our recent military adventures make clear that not all my fellow Americans approach these questions with the same rigorous application of Just War Doctrine that I do. Given that, it might make sense to address the weaker claim that the claims about Planned Parenthood and Trump might lead less careful people to respond violently.

In the case of Planned Parenthood, I think the answer is yes. I find the idea that someone like Robert Dear would have been fine and never bothered anybody but for Carly Fiorina mistaking a B-roll for live footage to be absurd, it isn't absurd to think that talking prominently about an organization killing thousands of babies a year might lead some people to believe they ought to be forcibly stopped from doing so, and if the law won't do it, then concerned citizens ought to.

In the case of Trump, this seems likely as well. Particularly in light of the popular narrative about Nazi Germany that his rise to power was aided by the complacency and inaction of people who should have known better ("First they came for the..., etc."). It's not surprising that talk about a prominent politician being the harbinger of a new era of fascism might lead some to conclude that this must be violently opposed.

If so, should this restrain their rhetoric?

This is more of a normative, fuzzy question that I think we need to honestly consider.

Factual truth, in itself, does not justify any statement someone could make. The sin of detraction, for example, involves the passing along of true information for the purpose of harming another's reputation.  So, the truth of Planned Parenthood's activities Trump's fascism does not, in itself, establish the prudence of talking about it. Obviously, those who make such statements are motivated to do so by a desire to prevent current and future evils.

In general, I think the culpability for violence that results from true statements about another party's actions rests first with those committing the violence, and second with those committing the acts that inspired the violence, with those who pointed out those actions placing a distant third. Establishing a norm that those who tell the truth about nefarious activities are responsible for how people respond to that information effectively creates a license for people to engage in all sorts of wrongdoing without fear of being exposed. If police officers are abusing people, we need to know about it, whether people will riot in response or not.

That said, I think people do have a responsibility to be as precise in their language as possible. I try to call what Planned Parenthood does "killing" rather than "murder" since I don't know what their intent is. 

Though this may be for reasons other than preventing violence. Freddie also retweeted a reference to a CS Lewis quote about not using more extreme language than the situation calls for.  In my judgment, this should have been applied to the non-Trump Republicans rather than Trump.  The rhetorical quiver has been emptied on the likes of Paul Ryan, and now there's nothing left for someone like Trump.

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