Thursday, December 17, 2009

Law and Order and Responsibility

It seems that Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly is ticked off at the producer of NBC's Law and Order, Dick Wolf, because in a recent episode of the show the actions of a character who aims to kill the children of immigrants are explained, in part, as due to the hatred spread by pundits such as O'Reilly, who was named in the show.
I don't know that I've ever seen an entire episode of the show, so I don't know what kind of agenda it might put forth. The little bits I've seen did not lead me to believe it was right wing agitprop like "24" or pushing a liberal agenda, a la The West Wing.
I can understand O'Reilly being angered at being called out, and I don't watch his show ever so I can't say much about it behind clips. From the clips I would say O'Reilly is not in the same league as others named in the show such as Glen Beck or Rush Limbaugh.
But that's for others to decide, and apparently the Law and Order folks lump them all together.
Personally, I'm all for all of them having the right to speak their minds, but I also believe that we are responsible for what we say and how we say it. The only reason we have Constitutional protections on speech is because we believe firmly that speech makes a difference.
It's OK to yell "fire" in a crowded theater if you're an actor and it's in the script. It may even be OK to yell it if there is, indeed, a fire -- although something a bit calmer might be more helpful.
It's altogether another thing if there is no fire, or if the fire is, say, a match used to light a cigar. (OK, I know, no smoking, but even someone as turned off by smoking as I am shouldn't yell "fire" at a lighter.)
A lot of today's bloviators strike me like that: they are screaming their heads off trying to whip up a frenzy about threats that don't amount to much more than a flick of the Bic (now there's an old reference).
It's remarkable, for example, how quickly both left and right play the "Hitler" card in their arguments. When you get to the point of comparing your opponents to Hitler and the Nazis -- which so many do in about two steps -- then what you are suggesting is that it is justified to use violence to stop the other side. I've tried to avoid the rhetorical temptation, though I've succumbed once or twice over the years -- usually in the guise of "I'm not suggesting that they're Nazis, but the way they goose step scare me ...". That we use that kind of rhetoric over issues such as reforming health care or immigration laws is just plain sad.
The sadness turns to tragedy if followers take up arms in response to the clarion calls. The same holds for makers of violent entertainment when its consumers reenact it in the real world. Speakers are responsible for their words, and while there is no reasonable way of legally extending responsibility for how listeners respond, to deny that there is a response is to deny the power of speech.
The causality is impossible to trace, but simply resorting to "1st amendment" arguments in the aftermath of tragedy is a coward's way out.
Don't know that this has much to do with the way Bill O'Reilly's name was used, but it does have something to do with how his words may get used.

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