Monday, August 08, 2005

... But Words Will Never Hurt Me? -- Part I

One of the most alarming themes to arise in conservative circles has been the equation between liberal dissent and treason. This is, of course, not news, as the phenomenon has been extensively examined by groups such as the Center for Media and Democracy, People for the American Way, and many others. However, the tendency of these groups has been to defend dissent from a position of free-speech absolutism. While they (rightly) decry such techniques as naked attempts to squelch critics, there exists an unspoken assumption that dissent can occur without consequences -- or at least without negative consequences. The reality is much more complicated and, by ignoring these complexities, we squander an opportunity to turn this argument back on our accusers. And that's an opportunity that we can't afford to miss.

To those of you who are cringing after reading that first paragraph, let me take a moment to reassure you that you will find no one more in favor of the right of free expression than I. I believe that speech -- and especially political speech -- is one of the key components of a free and democratic society. Beyond its foundational role in democratic systems, restrictions on free speech have been historically demonstrated to be pragmatic failures. Outside of the limitations implemented at the margins (covering slander/libel, for example), restrictions against free expression inevitably enable the majority to silence minority viewpoints -- exactly the viewpoints necessary for a free and open debate. Therefore, I would never allow the government the power to restrict public access to the marketplace of ideas. The potential for abuse is far too great.

However, my background in social psychology forbids me from ignoring the effects that words have on individuals. From a common sense standpoint, these effects are obvious. If words were completely impotent, we would have no reason to speak at all. There is always an intended effect we are hoping to achieve every time we open our mouths. We hope to provide information to others that will change the way they think and, in some way, change the way they behave.

Moreover, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that exposure to certain types of expression can lead to extremely adverse consequences. People respond to the environment they find themselves within. Oftentimes, these reactions can be wildly divergent from their behavior in other situations (as I have discussed here and here). Normal, God-fearing men and women can be transformed into unrepentant sadists merely through the application of carefully controlled social pressures -- pressures constructed largely by the use of words. Additionally, as has been demonstrated by Albert Bandura's Social Learning Theory, individuals will begin to internalize the messages they are exposed to, especially when the exposure occurs on a frequent basis.

Therefore, while I conclude that free expression is an important right that must be preserved, I acknowledge that there are consequences for allowing it. It ain't all peaches and cream.

Now, it helps to understand these consequences if we have a schema for the dialogues in play. For this, there are two critical features: the message and the audience.

With respect to the message, it is important to understand that there is the intended meaning and the perceived meaning. They are often the same -- but not always, and problems can arise when they diverge.

An important (but not necessarily controlling) factor with respect to message comprehension is the audience. There are the intended recipients of any communication, who will usually (but not always) share the author's understanding of it. And then, there is the unintended audience. These individuals generally receive the message passively, privy to it only because they are "in the room" when the words are spoken. Because the author is unconcerned with this audience when he constructs his message, the comprehension within this group is highly unpredictable -- again, often resulting in negative outcomes.

So, let's try applying this to liberal dissent.

When I, as a liberal, speak out against the war, there are many groups that are being deliberately targeted by my words: like-minded liberals, fence-sitters who might be swayed by my rhetoric, those in a position to implement changes in policy, soldiers, and certain segments of the international community (allies, most Muslims, most Iraqis, etc.). Within these groups, most will understand my words as I meant them.

However, not all. Specifically, many soldiers will fixate on a corollary of my dissent: that the war is not worth fighting and, therefore, their sacrifice is for naught. Try as I might to couch my rhetoric in "support the soldier, not the war" language, most will be unable to internalize such nuances. As I said in an earlier post:
Our support of the soldiers is unmitigated, even if we oppose the conflict itself. However, this is not sufficient to deflect the consequences of the combat experience. World War II veterans were told: "you sacrifice and killed -- but you did so to avert a far greater evil." The veterans of the Iraq war will be told: "you loyally followed orders -- but your actions served no great purpose." You can dress that message up if you want, but you can't substantially change it. And if the soldiers do not believe that there was justification behind their actions, they will suffer.
But, what of the unintended audience? While many fall into this category, there's one group that is of interest to us here -- and is generally the focus of the conservative critics: the terrorist/insurgent. We on the left frequently discount the importance of this audience, but an honest accounting demands that we acknowledge their existence. Doing so requires that we recognize the effect of our words.

Many have argued that the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut was a seminal moment in the modern terrorist movement. It demonstrated -- rightly or wrongly -- that the American will can be challenged relatively easily. In that instance, a single event managed to remove American military influence from the region in question. Today's terrorist/insurgent is clearly attempting to repeat this history.

So, when my message of dissent reaches his ears, it is heard less as dissent and more as the weakening of American resolve. Whether or not this dissent truly reflects weakened resolve (or whether or not it is appropriate for resolve to weaken), such information will have and emboldening effect on our enemies who hear it.

Thus, our dissent (if I may boldly include you) plays out in ways detrimental to our soldiers and to the war effort in general. Reasonable argument can and should (and will later this afternoon) be made regarding the importance of these negative consequences, but denying their existence would be disingenuous. The costs of such expression goes hand-in-hand with their benefits.

Of course, if we're going to set up a paradigm like this one, it wouldn't be fair to apply it to only one side of the political spectrum. In the second half of this post, we'll remedy that oversight. And, as we will see, the worm does indeed turn.

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