You may have heard what happened to Tucker Carlson, the host on Fox news. But to recap if you have not, some geniuses decided that they should protest at his home. He was not home but his wife was. The commotion was so much that she thought it was a home invasion and hid in the pantry. Classy. I am sure Carlson himself will say that protesting him in public is fair game. Banging on the door of his home and making his wife fear for his safety is not. I cannot see how any decent person can endorse this idea of protesting.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how the incivility in our society is a problem that comes from both the left and the right. It is my experience that those on the right try to justify their incivility while those on the left try to deny that their incivility exists. They tend to look at incidents like what happened at Carlson’s home as exceptional whereas the violence done by conservatives as normative. As I pointed out in my blog, the fact that more Republican political officials have been physically assaulted this election cycle than Democrat public officials indicates the weakness of that argument. But I am not going to use this as just another example of leftist inspired violence. Rather I want to use this episode to show how denial that there is a problem on the left leads to a lack of introspection that makes what happened at Carlson’s home more likely to occur again and again.
We should consider what would make protestors think that it was okay to terrorize not only Carlson but his family. The protestors enunciate their motivations at the rally and in a facebook post. In that facebook post they state; “Protecting ourselves and our communities means interfering with those who make a platform for hate. So we will go to their homes and their workplaces, and find them in restaurants.” The protestors also talked about how Carlson is not safe “either.” At the rally the chants of “Tucker Carlson, we will fight! We know where you sleep at night” is particularly menacing.
Sitting back and looking at these statements tells us that those in the protest feel threatened and want to threaten the source of their fears. That source is Carlson in particular and right-wing commentators in general. But how has Carlson threatened them? Like or hate him, all he does is talk. He has no official power, and to the best of my knowledge, has not engaged in any physical violence. Yet, someone was pounding at his door and at least threatening physical violence to him and his family. This seems to be a very disproportional response to any of the comments that Carlson has made.
But is it a disproportionate response if you believe that Carlson is engaging in violence as well? Well no. If you believe that Carlson is engaging in violence, then it makes sense if someone wants to attack him first. And one would feel justified using violence and the threat of violence to stop this attack. In the mind of the protestor, Carlson is a source of violence that must be stopped. But since we have no evidence that Carlson is engaging in violence, or has the power to engage in violence, then where would these protestors get the idea that he is engaging in such violence?
Perhaps they are getting such ideas from individuals such as Lisa Feldman Barrett, Nesrine Malik, and Erika Morris. These individuals, as well as other leftists, have pushed for a notion that words and speech are violence. This is the underpinning of ideas such as microaggression and part of the way progressives can justify actions such as what we saw at Tucker’s home. Even if Tucker never lifts a rock or fires a gun, he can be treated as one who has done these things. Violence can be met with violence, and suddenly terrorizing him and his family at his home may not seem like such a bad idea after all. Is it not better to get him before he can get to you?
I have run into the notion of words being violence when I have defended free speech. My contention is that if we try to outlaw “hate speech,” what stops us from making any ideas we do not like “hate speech?” To the best of my knowledge, Carlson has not openly advocated for violence to be done to other individuals. (Yes I know someone will say that the policies he advocates will harm others. And conservatives will say that support for abortion harms the innocent. These are political discussions we should have, but let us not justify violence because we disagree on policy). But since his words can be hurtful, he can be put into the same camp as those who actually do throw the rocks or fire the gun.The damage done by not taking seriously the propensity of some of the leftist dogma to lead to violence is that beliefs such as “words are violence” are not sufficiently examined for how they can lead to violence. It is true that words can lead to violence. But they are not in and of themselves violent. I do not like being insulted. But I know it is much different being punched than being insulted. That difference matters. Intellectual honesty requires that we acknowledge that difference and treat those that make verbal insults differently than those who make physical assaults. It is reasonable to physically defend oneself from physical assaults. In a civilized society, it should never be permissible to physically defend oneself from verbal insults.
It must seem to some that I am giving conservatives a pass. But in the past I have addressed the propensity of some Christians to defend the indefensible within President Trump. I have called for a new evangelism that distances itself from the incivility of Trump. But addressing just the garbage that comes from Trump will not be sufficient to deal with the issues of incivility and tribalism. When you have progressives who explicitly say, and believe, that all, or at least nearly all, of the problems are due to the dysfunctions on the right, then we have individuals who are ideologically blind to issues such as the “words are violence” dogma and how it leads to leftist inspired violence. No matter what happens with Trump, if progressives do not deal with the impulses to violence from members of their political in-group, then our problems of tribalism will remain. It may be Christian to turn the other cheek, but that is not part of our human nature. Conservatives are not going to disarm themselves in the battle of rhetoric if progressives are not also going to look at ways they can turn the temperature down in our society. This is a bipartisan problem, and it will only be solved in a bipartisan manner.
The “words are violence” belief is not going to be the only way progressive dogma can lead to physical violence. It may not even be the most powerful way that progressive rhetoric leads to violence and attempts at terrorism. But this is a starting place to help us see that the problem is not merely a feature of political conservatism. In the age of Trump, it is clear that there is conservative rhetoric that can lead to violence. Uncivil comments from our president can have an enduring effect on our ability to have reasonable discourse in our society. But we have to address both sides of the problem, or we will never rid ourselves of the sort of toxic dialog that has become far too standard in our society.
I fear that those on the left are unwilling to confront their contribution to this poisonous atmosphere. When I have talked about having a dialogue and engaging in active listening, I have found more resistance from progressives than from conservatives. Perhaps it is because, as Jonathan Haidt found, progressives understand the perspective of conservatives less than conservatives understand the perspectives of progressives. This could make it easier for progressives to dehumanize conservatives than vice versa. Perhaps the image progressives have of themselves as being tolerant prevents them from engaging in the introspection needed to see how bigotry is also present among their own numbers. Whatever the reason, until we see that this is a problem for those on both sides of our political debate, then we continue to foster an incivility that can lead to violence.
Many on the left have called upon Republicans and conservatives to repudiate many of the toxic comments of Trump. I agree with such calls. But is it not also reasonable for progressives to repudiate the toxic comments and ideas that come from the left? Let us start with the misleading “words are violence” dogma and go on from there.