Thursday, March 09, 2017

Words are deeds

Now that the flap (you can probably guess what it was) that gave rise to this post is not the latest, hottest stuff in the news anymore, I feel at leisure to write a post about a point that came up in the course of Facebook discussions.

A certain public figure made recorded statements that seemed to endorse (some) instances of sexual intercourse between adult men and thirteen-year-old boys. He got in trouble in the court of public opinion for making these claims and then said (I leave it to others to guess whether I found the claims convincing or not) that he hadn't really intended in his (rather glowing) endorsements to refer to thirteen-year-old boys but rather to such encounters between men and boys over the age of legal consent in Britain--namely, at least 16. And that in particular he had in mind his own wonderful homosexual relationship with an older man when he was 17. Indeed, he's doubled down and has gone on at some length about the wonderfulness of homosexual relationships in which older teen boys are mentored by, given stability and a sense of identity by, older men who are having sex with them. Well, that's obviously much, much better./sarc

In the course of debating all of this and how bad, exactly, it was, I was much struck by the comment of a friend who made much of the supposed contrast between words and deeds. The "certain public figure" in the last paragraph has, one supposes, never actually had sexual relations with a thirteen-year-old boy. So even if he were endorsing some of those relationships, it was argued, this was much, much less bad than the actions of a left-wing figure (Lena Dunham) who by her own statement did actually sexually touch her little sister. Dunham engaged in acts, you see, while M.Y., even at the worst interpretation of what he was advocating, engaged only in words. See? See?

Well, no, I don't see. Similar statements came up during Trump's campaign. You've all heard the meme: "I'm more concerned about what Hillary has done than about what Trump has said."

That sort of thing makes a good soundbyte, but it's misleading. This needs to be understood: There is no general ethical principle that non-verbal deeds are worse than verbal deeds. I put it that way deliberately, because saying something is an action. It's not a non-act. It's not being passive. It's entirely plausible that a particular verbal action could be just as bad as, or even worse than, a given non-verbal action.

If Person A advocates sex with eight-year-olds and Person B actually engages in, let's say, adultery with an adult, is it obvious that the latter has done something worse than the former? Yet the adulterer is doing an "act," by the colloquial definition, while the talker is, supposedly, just "saying words."

But let's try to make the crimes involved more similar. Suppose that Person A advocates murdering white people because of the "legacy of slavery." He engages in repeated incitement to such murders. Person B is one of those influenced by him and he murders a single white person out of racial hatred. But as far as Person A knows, there could be many more murders as a result of his advocacy. Indeed, that's what he's attempting to bring about! Can we say with any confidence that the inciter has done something less bad than the murderer because he "just said words" while the murderer actually "carried out an act"? I would say that is not clear at all! Indeed, one could even argue in a given scenario that the inciter, an Iago of racial hatred, is the more guilty party.

It's not enough to respond to this argument by saying, "Of course I acknowledge that words mean things and that words are important." It's not enough, that is to say, if one continues thereafter using the cliche, "A said words. B did deeds. So why is everyone [or the left, etc.] more upset with A than with B?" It all depends on what the words were or what the deeds were. The use of such cliches may be a shorthand for, "I don't think that A's words were worse than B's deeds. In fact, I think just the opposite." But in that case one is going to have to gets one's hands dirty and talk about exactly what A did say and why it wasn't as bad as B's non-verbal act. One isn't going to be able to remain above the fray and decline to comment on the degree of alleged badness of A's words. And one isn't going to be able to get away with saying, "I'm not defending A at all." Because one is at least comparatively "defending A." One is saying that A's verbal acts weren't as bad as B's non-verbal acts. That is a contentful proposition that can't be settled merely by the acknowledged fact that A's acts were verbal while B's were non-verbal.

The cliche, "I'm more worried about what B has done than about what A has said" encourages laziness in thinking and debate. If it's a shorthand for a stronger claim, then it's a sloppy shorthand that attempts to get out of the harder relevant work of thinking, investigating the facts ("Okay, exactly what did A say, what effects is it going to have, what effects could he have foreseen, what did he mean?"), and arguing.

It may be true from a purely pragmatic, legal perspective that words should be less often criminalized than non-verbal acts. I'm all in favor of the First Amendment. But even in the legal realm, there is no absolute rule that words can never be justly or (in America) constitutionally subject to civil or criminal penalties. All the more so, in the moral realm we shouldn't be quick to assume that words aren't as bad as other deeds.

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