I just saw this article about rocker Ted Nugent, who has promised, in the wake of the Alexandria, Virginia shootings, to dial down his own "hateful rhetoric" in the name of civility. "I will void* anything that can be interpreted as condoning or referencing violence," said Nugent on a recent New York radio show. Nugent has been guilty, in the past of telling President Obama to "suck on my machine gun," among other things.
My question is this: is Nugent making a mistake? Personally, I would defend his free-speech right to express his partisan passion as I would defend Kathy Griffin's right to express her own visceral distaste for President Trump, however inappropriate her expression might be.
In my first post on the Kathy Griffin flap, I received a comment from Richard Stefans, who wrote the following:
It's not that she is actually threatening the president, but her stunt is a threatening act in itself. Such a graphic display could certainly incite others to consider taking action themselves--maybe not even against the president. There are certain limitations to free speech and incitement to violence is one of them.
There's nothing unreasonable in what Richard says above (in fact, Richard seems a bit prophetic!), but I nevertheless disagreed with him, writing in response:
That's an interesting point, but it seems to be in the same spirit as "video games incite violence," an argument I find unpersuasive. If certain images and actions "trigger" certain people, it's because those people are predisposed to be "triggered." To say otherwise is to agree with the PC line that we must avoid being offensive because people have no control over their own actions—an argument I've heard from the left regarding, for example, cartoonists who lampoon Islam. "Drawing Islam-mocking cartoons is a sure incitement to violence," the PC crowd argues. I don't buy it. I don't buy the blame-the-victim attitude that arose after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, in which lefties basically claimed that those cartoonists deserved what they got, and what they got was inevitable. It's as if these people don't believe in human freedom and responsibility, which is the problem whenever we talk about "triggering" language at all. And I don't buy the PC line in Kathy Griffin's case, either. If someone looks at Griffin's photo and decides to behead President Trump ISIS-style, such an act is on that person's head, not on Kathy Griffin's. There is no inevitable chain of causation leading from Griffin's image to actually beheading Trump, any more than there's an inevitable chain of causation leading from drawing Muhammad parodies to the mass murder of French cartoonists. In both cases, there is choice.
The right should avoid the hypocrisy of double standards: it should not mock the left for using "triggering" language, then turn around and talk about how people might be triggered by Kathy Griffin. Either triggering is a legitimate concept, or it isn't. I say it isn't. I say that, in those moments when we get pissed off and our emotions take over, it's because we've chosen to allow that to happen. We're morally responsible for our actions, even when we're sick in the head, and even when we're overcome with rage. If we're free, then we're responsible. If there's choice, then certain actions, like violence and murder, aren't inevitable. And I'm not willing to constrain someone's free speech just because some random person might be inspired to commit a violent act. That's the PC way. No, thanks.
And lest anyone think there's some sort of contradiction in saying certain people are "predisposed to be triggered" while also saying that people have free choice, I'll note in my defense that I've long argued (especially in the context of depression and suicide) that human freedom does not disappear when mental illness (or any other cognitive/emotive force) appears on the scene. Human freedom works in and through our compulsions, which means you can't fall back on your compulsions as an excuse for your bad behavior. You're still morally responsible, even when you're sick. Saying "Kathy triggered me!" doesn't cut it. That's the same excuse as that age-old moral dodge: "The devil made me do it."
You can see why I'm wondering whether Mr. Nugent might be making a PC mistake, here. If people inflame each other, it's mainly because the inflamed choose to be inflamed. There is always choice—always. Your emotional responses aren't as automatic or as inevitable as you think. "He made me..." doesn't cut it. This goes for anyone inspired by Kathy Griffin's visuals, and it goes for anyone who might be inspired by Ted Nugent's rhetoric. Perpetrators of violence can't use Griffin and Nugent as an excuse for their own acts because that's what it means to be a moral agent.
For a dissenting opinion, listen to this ex-Secret Service agent talk about the Kathy Griffin flap. He makes valid points, mainly from the angle of statistical correlation: (1) the likelihood of violence goes up after violent rhetoric is aired, for example, and (2) as he puts it, the Secret Service "doesn't have the luxury" of not checking out verbal threats or threatening gestures against the president. These are all good points, very much in line with what Richard Stefans was saying above, but I don't think they erase moral agency. That being said, I personally would never be so stupid as to threaten the US president in even a lighthearted way, although I've been guilty of making my own beheading jokes.
For a take that's more consistent with my point of view, here's Stefan Molyneux basically nailing Kathy Griffin to the wall for her moral failures, making it clear that she has only herself to blame. But as far as I'm concerned, she and Ted Nugent have no need to soften their tone. The whole "I'm moderating my rhetoric to avoid ... condoning or referencing violence" shtick is a cave-in to the PC crowd. By that same logic, then, we would need to eliminate all violent video games, violent music videos, comedy routines that reference violence, movies with violent imagery, etc. The reductio reveals the absurdum.
*"Void" sounds awkward to me. Is this a misprint? Could it have been "avoid"?
ADDENDUM: this cartoonist also disagrees with me, but I think this argument is going to blow up in the right's face:
Upshot: I agree that there's a correlation between culture-of-violence rhetoric and actual violence, but correlation is not causation, especially when moral agency is factored in.