Thursday, March 20, 2008

Guns and Profanity

There are two issues going before the Supreme Court in the news today. The hearing challenging the Washington D.C. gun ban and a challenge to broadcast indecency regulation by Fox. Both of these cases have to do with the relationship of individual to one's government. And, in both of these cases freedom is being defended by right wing maniacs. The same maniacs who have been decidedly anti-freedom under the Bush administration.

It's difficult to defend freedom of speech when its offensive, and it's difficult to defend the right to have and use a lethal weapon without resorting to a slippery slope argument that evokes an opressive totalatarian 1984 regime.

Many of the Founding Fathers were philosophically libertarian. This philosophy describes the American way the individual relates to one's government. Power is vested in the government by the citizens and the purpose of the government is to preserve the rights of its citizens. This is the only way sovereignty can be legitimate. Under this philosophy, the rights delineated by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are not granted by the document but ensured by it. Every human has these rights, it is the purpose of government to ensure the freedom to use these rights.

Freedom can be a scary thing. Its hard to trust strangers not to abuse their freedoms and infringe upon ours, but that is the freedom that each of us gives up to live within civilization. As long as no one infringes on your rights, you do not have the right to be offended.

The national debate over guns is often depicted as having one side that declares, possessing guns is an individual human right, and another side that declares that guns kill people. I do not see these as counterpoints to one another. Saying that a gun kills is like saying water is wet. A gun is a tool for killing and a pistol is a tool for killing other humans. The point is so obvious that it overlooks a fundamental difference in ideology that stems from the Western fear of death. We believe that death is bad and killing is wrong as if they are intrinsic universal truths. In an urban life, separated from the terrifying freedom of nature, and surrounded by a comforting layer of concrete and glass it is easy to believe, "my life does not cause death," but that is not true. It seems to me that this is the same kind of foolishness that leads to veganism. Though, as much as I believe it to be foolish, it is each person's right to choose when it is acceptable to kill. And in a society where our killing is done for us by others, it is difficult to stop. I can only accept that by being alive that my life necessarily causes death, one day I will die, and something will eat my body.

All this wheel of life shit is too philosophical for the debate at hand. The point is that sometimes, killing is necessary. Sometimes it is necessary to kill another human being. For instance, in self defense when that human is trying to rape you, kill you, or severely injure you it is acceptable to use lethal force to protect yourself. Libertarian philosophy supports this conclusion and our laws regulate its effect by apportioning guilt. If you accept these two points, that there are acceptable times to kill and one of those times is to protect your person, the only remaining debate is one of tool choice and the question of banning guns becomes one of reasonable regulation. Should weapon choice be limited, and in what way?

Meaningful hard data is difficult to come by since through studies have been done by either side of the issue and anecdotal evidence can be pointed to by either side. In my recent posts on this blog I have referenced some stories from the past year that tend to support the conclusion that gun regulation either does not work or is counterproductive. One story noted a significant decline in violent crime in Detroit, every year for the last ten years since the passing of Michigan's concealed carry law. In the tragic massacre at Virginia Tech, the killer had been declared to be a danger to himself or others. Existing gun control laws prohibited him from purchasing a gun but he was able to anyhow, either because of bureaucratic bungling by law enforcement or through the negligence of the shop owner. Even more recently a gun toting maniac shot up a convent and was stopped from killing more people by an armed member of the congregation that had the lawful right to carry and had been a police officer.

One last point about the Second Amendment. The founding fathers were radical revolutionaries who had just overthrown their government through a violent war. They knew this was only possible by having armed citizens who could be loosely organized into militia when there was a need for extra military force. As Thomas Jefferson said, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

Such an audacious quote brings me to the topic of freedom of speech. You are not really using your freedom of speech unless someone is trying to take it away from you. The gurantee of this freedom exists not to protect mundane and polite speech, but offensive, shocking, profane, and challenging speech. This is why freedom of speech means you do not have the right to be offended.

Speech is impossible to regulate. Profane language is derived from emotion and is meant to convey that emotional content. The power is only marginally in the words but it really stems from the emotional content they are meant to convey and the power we invest in them. You might as well attempt to regulate anger and criminalize rage.

Even if one could make a list of say, seven words, that must never be spoken and if that regulation can actually have an effect on stamping out those words. Other words will be granted offensive power by being filled with the same emotional content and social stigma making the old words meaningless and silly. Language is fluid and meaning changes in relatively quick time even in regular words. "Humbug" used to be a profoundly profane word and is hardly used today.

Further, such regulation is inherently self-defeating. Labeling certain words as taboo only encourages their use for the purpose of shocking others. Thusly, restricting a words use as profane, only enshrines its profanity, and further empowers it to do harm.

I am certain that this was the goal of the performers who used these offensive words and caused Fox to be fined by the FCC. It seems ironic to me that Fox, the network that curtailed political speech and freedom of the press through social pressure and jingoism in the frantic run-up to the Iraq war where the MSM failed its duty to the entire world, is the one who is fighting for a small victory for free speech. Then again, if anyone is going to go to court over profanity, its going to be the network that brought you "Who wants to marry a millionaire?"

No comments: