Hate speech and the mainstreaming of extremism
The First Amendment protects the media or web messenger, but the message can have murderous consequences.
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Fox News' Dan Gainor tut-tutted the criticism in a column yesterday, calling it partisan hackery. "It's now the big theme in the media with the New York Times, ABC, CNN and lefty outlets like Salon joining a rising media chorus that conservatives are dangerous," Mr. Gainor writes.Skip to next paragraph
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To be sure, there have been far more violent times in America, long before the advent of the Internet and increasingly partisan media. What's more, there's another counter-argument: The First Amendment, especially in angry times, can be a peaceful vent for pent-up social frustrations – surely part of the Founders' intent.
Yet social observers like Thomas Palaima, professor of classics at the University of Texas in Austin, are discomfited – and conflicted – by the sheer growth and ratings power of hate-tinged speech. He specifically points out the reams of coded homophobia, racism, and sexism found in the comment sections of major national sports web sites.
"It's a moral swamp," he says in an interview. "After studying war and violence, I do not have a romantic idea about human nature. But historically almost all societies are based on redirecting individual desires and turning them into things that are social goods. I don't think by suppressing expression of these strong, violent emotions, hatreds, prejudices, that you do society a service. Yet I agree that somehow having them out there is also a problem."
Barring Canada-style hate speech regulations, which make it a crime to even snarkily critique people based on their race or creed, the US is unlikely to curb the First Amendment's guarantees of free speech for everyone.
But absence of legislation doesn't bar media firms and bloggers from taking a closer look at the effect of their stories, commentaries, and comment sections on viewers and readers.
And to an extent, that's happening. MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann said in the wake of Dr. Tiller's death that "we need to separate television from terrorism." Hate-filled e-mail from viewers caused Fox News commentator Shepard Smith last week to call out those who fill chat rooms and comment sections with "hate not based on fact."
"More and more it seems like people are taking the extra step and taking a gun out," he warned.
Indeed, even in the cantankerous, open forums of the US media, it is possible to go too far.
Last week, Connecticut blogger Harold Turner was arrested and charged with inciting violence against lawmakers by warning on his blog: "Obey the Constitution or die!" He was angry over a law that would give lay Roman Catholic parishioners more power over church finances.
Mr. Turner defended the post as "crude political hyperbole." He is to appear in court on June 22.