Wednesday, January 28, 2009

About language

Two fascinating pieces on "language" today from two of Australia's self-confessed Right commentators, one on free speech and the other on rhetoric.

The first is by Janet Albrechtsen writing in the Oz. She discusses the case of a Dutch politician who has been found guilty of inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims in a film. Albrechtsen claims that if we prosecute people for their offensive words three tings are sure to happen;
1. The opinions may be suppressed but they won't go away, they go underground and hence avoid the robust public debate that could puncture them.
2. When we prosecute people for their words people unwittingly create martyrs.
3. It creates perverse incentives as people increasingly seek legal protection from the mildest affront.

There is much to agree with in this list, but the fmajor observation I'd make is that there are laws that each of them could apply to. For example the third is an argument that could be used against any product safety laws, or professional registration requirement (e.g. of lawyers Janet). The state protecting consumers results in consumers overly relying on the state for protection.

The first is a semi-standard libertarian argument - suppression only leads to further illegality, actually commonly used by harm minimisation theorists in relation to drugs. On the flip side tough, allowing the debate also gives the views credibility.

The issue around prosecuting people for inciting hatred is interesting when compared, say, to the crime of assault. An assault is any act which intentionally or recklessly causes another person to fear immediate and unlawful violence. The action of striking someone s technically battery. I can therefore commit asault only with words or words and actions. But assault is an action against a individual.

"Hate crime" is a logical extension of that to an action that is exclusively in words and is focussed on a group of people rather than an individual. Perhaps it might be better constructed as a charge of multiple assaults. The question is not so much whether the crime of "inciting hatred" should exist as to whether the standard of proof is being set high enough.

The second language discussion was provided by Andrew Bolt in the Herald-Sun. In it he is having a go at those members of the commentariat going gooey over Obama's oratory. Bolt tries to demonstrate that Obama's oratory is the same as Bush's by providing a number of side by side quotes.

What he actually achieves is the demonstration that the difference between a "dangerous liberal" and a "crank conservative" isn't all that much in terms of their core acceptance of concepts of liberty and democracy, but that actually their way of saying it is vastly diffrent.

1. Obama is crisp and clear, Bush was wordy. Try this comparison offered by Bolt in which Obama uses two short phrases where Bush went for the longer form.
Obama: We will not apologise for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defence . . .
Bush: We will work with our friends and allies across the world to defend our way of life.

2. Obama focussed on actions, Bush labelled opponents.
Obama: Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.
Bush: Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists . . .

3. Obama focussed on equality, whereas Bush focussed on "freedom". This comparison shows the difference - both see resort to divine authorisation, but only Obama mentions equality.
Obama: . . . the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free . . .
Bush: Freedom is a universal gift of almighty God . . .

The worying thing is that a wordsmith like Bolt apparently doesn't see the differences.

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