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.


Chris McCartney said...

>"...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. ... There is no general ethical principle that non-verbal deeds are worse than verbal deeds.

True enough, but surely your opponents don't need anything as broad as that. Can't they appeal to the principle: "For any specific evil deed X, asserting that X is good is not as bad as doing X"? This is different from the broader principle in two ways: first, the non-verbal act in question is matched up specifically with the content of the verbal act. Second, the nature of the verbal act is restricted to asserting, as distinct from inciting.

To the extent that one incites someone else to a particular deed, it seems to me that the inciter participates at least in part in the guilt of the deed to which he incites. So that whatever guilt his verbal act bore, merely as such, the inciter also bears the further guilt arising from the deed being done, which would not have arisen if the deed had not been done. I agree with you that in some cases the inciter may be more culpable than the trigger-man. But I claim that the plausibility of this depends on attributing to the inciter at least partial agency in regard to X, the deed itself. If the deed X is not done, then that additional guilt is not there. Or do you wish to claim that even a failed attempt to incite to an evil act X could be just as bad as performing an evil act of that very type? That seems a more dubious claim. And since one who merely asserts that X is good is less guilty than one who incites (successfully or not) to X, the principle seems secure. I take it that a distinguishing feature of asserting, as distinct from inciting, is that the asserter cannot be regarded as in any way an agent of the deed that someone else does, even if the someone else believed X was good because he was persuaded by the asserter. His decision actually to do the deed was entirely his own, and the asserter cannot be held responsible for it, specifically, though he can be held responsible for the evil of the distinct act of persuading him that X was good. The verbal act of asserting, to be sure, is evil partly because of the role it plays in a possible causal history leading up to the non-verbal act. But playing a role like that in such a causal history is not sufficient to render the asserter a partial agent of the evil deed. A case where something does render the asserter a partial agent would seem to be one in which, ipso facto, he is not merely asserting but inciting.

I feel it might be worthwile to mention that this is a mere dialectical point which should not be taken as opposition to your general stance on the public person whose verbal act occasioned your post. At the very least I agree that that verbal act was sufficiently bad that conservatives shouldn't be giving him speaking invitations, which anyway they shouldn't be giving a flagrant homosexual in the first place.

But I can still use that same type of verbal act to make my point: Suppose a sexually normal woman, whose father is homosexual (and has lately been discovered to have been in just such a twisted relationship with a young man) motivated by her affection for her dad, asserts in public that what he did was good. She had nothing to do with the relationship; her assertion came after the fact. Surely her verbal act isn't as evil as what he did to the young man. And hence not as evil as the act of sexually abusing a child, which is what your opponents are attributing to Dunham.

It seems to me your opponents are guilty of a red herring, there, rather than the mistake you charge them with.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks for your very interesting comment. If I'm brief in reply, it's merely because I'm on my way to do something else, not because I don't appreciate your thoughtful ideas.

In brief, then: Legally, I think the distinction between inciting X and asserting the good of X probably needs to be retained for important prudential reasons. And it should be a very bright line: Explicit words of incitement or something of that kind.

*Morally* matters are, ISTM, less cut-and-dried. When does asserting the good of X shade into inciting to X? Some factors that, to my mind, make this person's act of asserting the good of X more like inciting are these:

1) He asserts the good of X qua person who has been involved in X, even, supposedly, as the more vulnerable person. Hence, his words will carry more weight in making others think well of doing X, and he knows this. (I'm thinking here in the particular case of hephebophilia relationships with older young men.)

2) He asserts the good of X in over-the-top language, even attributing it to saving people from committing suicide, calling it life-affirming, etc.

3) He asserts the good of X even in the context of apologizing for (he says) having mistakenly given the impression that he asserted the good of Y, which is (arguably) worse than X. This makes his comments (to some) appear particularly thoughtful and his endorsement of X even more effective.

4) He is himself right now in a position where he might very well decide to do X himself, and apparently wouldn't think it wrong.

5) He has followers who hang on his every word, and he knows that his assertion of the good of X will be influential in normalizing X among them.

And so forth.

We human beings are so tied up with one another that getting out there and acting as a kind of missionary for X, from a position of "public pundit," becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish from inciting to X.

But as you'll notice, you and I are having an interesting discussion of this matter and of the details of what made these public comments bad. The offhand meme in question about Dunham, and the attempt to defend it just by referring repeatedly to the words/deeds distinction, didn't get into any of this, which is what makes it a lazy substitute for tough moral thought and argument about the concrete situation.

Lydia McGrew said...

I'm also inclined to think that any distinction between advocating the goodness of something and inciting to that act either disappears or becomes morally insignificant if the act is truly heinous, and disappears faster the more heinous the act. Compare:

John tried to incite people to kill and eat two-year-olds,


John made a ten-minute Youtube video talking about the great goodness of killing and eating two-year-olds.