Wednesday, June 03, 2009

"Don't Blame O'Reilly": A Pro-Choice Advocate Reminds Us That Media Do Not Yell "Fire!" in Movie Theaters

Yesterday, Helen Searls had a compelling rhetorical treatment of the Tiller murder, as well as of the nature of how America handles the abortion debate more generally. Making her own pro-choice proclivities very clear, Searls takes shots at Andrew Sullivan Daily Kos, pundits on MSNBC, and many of us in the unwashed blogosphere for over-reaching in laying blame for acts of anti-abortion violence at the mantle of its most vitriolic talkers.

But, Searls' take is also very different from those who throw in totally with the free will position, or the idea that this was the action of a lone loon.

Bloggers like Jill Filipovic are quite wrong to make an analogy between O’Reilly’s rhetoric and the shouting of ‘Fire!’ in a croweded theatre. The point about the overused ‘Fire!’ example is that in a crowded theatre there is no time to think: if someone shouts, everyone runs, as there’s no time for debate or reasoned inquiry into the nature of the fire or the truth of the claim. The link between words and actions becomes blurred in this one, exceptionally rare instance.

In contrast, when O’Reilly says stuff on his show, there is every opportunity to question and challenge his claims. TV is not a panicked atmosphere but a media outlet, where the audience hears things, weighs them up, and decides whether to agree or disagree. Far from calling for anti-abortion activists to ‘mind their language’, their often crass remarks should be seen as an opportunity to meet fire with fire, to counter their claims with more compelling arguments and opinions. Far from needing less talk about abortion, we need more. Things might have turned out differently if O’Reilly’s arguments had provoked a robust public debate about why women need people like Dr Tiller and access to late-term abortions

Much to chew on here. It is certainly true that Pro Choice advocacy in the United States has grown increasingly timid, and in some ways has altogether disappeared (occasional soundbites in favor of the principles of privacy and choice notwithstanding) from the rhetoric of leaders within the Democratic Party. This unwillingness to meet the anti-abortion arguments directly, on the rhetorical battlefield in the public square, very much extends to President Obama, as Searls notes:

But sadly, for too long the question of late-term abortion has been treated as a highly sensitive, even embarrassing issue by many pro-choice activists. And pro-choice politicians do not consider late-term abortion a good subject for public discussion. As President Barack Obama’s speech at Notre Dame University demonstrated, pro-choice politicians are keen to avoid the substantive issues in the abortion debate whenever possible.

But if the pro-choice lobby stays quiet on this issue, it will effectively vacate the public arena and allow people like O’Reilly to barge in and take the alleged moral highground; shamefacedness about late-term abortion allows anti-abortion campaigners to see it and treat it as, well, something shameful. In such a climate, it is little wonder that individuals like Dr Tiller were so effectively demonised. Late-term abortion should not be a dirty little secret never raised in polite society. It should be openly discussed and rationally understood. There are many very sound reasons why women need to have access to late-term abortion services, and there should be no shame in defending them.

It is a tragedy that it has taken the brutal murder of a decent and compassionate man to remind us why so many women turn to people like Dr Tiller for help. O’Reilly has been banging on about Tiller for years, but it is only now that we are beginning to hear the other side of Tiller’s story - a story about a brave doctor who believed passionately in defending women’s reproductive rights. This was the real Dr Tiller, who was seen by many of his patients as something like a knight in shining armour.

In the wake of the Bush Administration, many of us have been gladdened and relieved at Obama's central strategy of seeking to "tone down" the culture wars. We do not want things to escalate to violence, after all, and there are pressing matters such as health care and North Korea and Harrogate's student loan debt to worry about. But at the same time, if one side refuses to tone down the culture war, then does the other essentially cede all the important Rhetorical Ground, by confining engagement to asking everyone to get along?

Questions of responsibility for Tiller's murder aside, In Harrogate's view, Searls is dead-on right in her premise that our wish to avoid vociferously defending abortion rights in the public square has been exposed as a totally ineffective approach.

How do you fight inflammatory speech? Not by shutting it down, not by asking the speakers to chill, and also not by ignoring it. Fight it with reasonable, but vociferous and bold speech of your own. We all need to realize that the Culture Wars have not gone away, have not been toned down in the United States---nor will they anytime soon.


solon said...

You may want to check out this post on Democracy in America about the asymmetrical abortion debate.

One aspect about constitutional law to think about is the philosophical problem with the concept of incitement:
If I incite you to act, this means:
(1) I say something and you listen
(2) You choose to act or engage in violence because I told you to act
(3) But in choosing to act, you take over responsibility for your actions and I am no longer in position to be responsible for you acting.

Even if the discourse is over-emotional and "incites" a crowd to action, the person who commits the crime must lose the ability to choose and be under control of the person provided the original, emotional argument. It seems that there cannot be any delay between the initial argument and the action.

This is quite tricky with the O'Reilly discourse as there was considerable time between the discourse and the violence.

Better counter-persuasion, even if it attacks the advertisers on O'Reilly's program is necessary.

harrogate said...

A qualification: Yes, there was a lot of time betwen O'Reilly's initial attack on Tiller and his murder. At the same time it bears noting that O'Reilly SUSTAINED his attacks between 2006 and 2009. Indeed, the blogosphere (and MSNBC on Monday night) has made much of the plethora of You Tube clips of O'Reilly calling Tiller a murderer of babies again, and again, and again. During Sebalius' nomination process, O'Reilly pounded on the point, arguing that because of Tiller she was unfit to serve-that in fact the Kansas Governor was herself an accomplice to baby killing.

Further, during the brouhaha runup to Obama's speech at Notre Dame (not so long ago as all that, after all), O'Reilly repeatedly invoked Tiller's name.

Regardless of the stand we all decide to take here, it's important to recognize the scope of what the Fox network did.

None of this is to be cavalier about free speech rights, solon. Rachel Maddow was the most heroic high profile rhetor during the impassionaed breakout on Monday night, because while rightly condemning the inflammatory likes of O'Reilly and Terry, she reminded her deeply anti-Fox audience to remember that the importance of free speech is not to be mitigated in the name of security.

Your final point of course aligns with Searls, and it is the point that Harrogate is slowly arriving at as well. But at what point will this message sink into the brains of the media ownership. For that matter, when will good arguments emerge from the lips of our "progressive" leadership?