The Violence in Our Language

Is the bad-temper manifest in so much contemporary commentary merely a letting off of steam, or is it something more sinister, a prelude, or at least incitement, to violence?

Last March, in the south of France, a Moslem terrorist killed four people in a supermarket, one of them a butcher. Three days later, a militant vegan posted the following message on her Facebook page:

So, it shocks you that a murderer is killed by a terrorist? Not me, I have zero compassion for him, there is such a thing as justice after all.

The writer of these lovely words was later sentenced to seven months’ imprisonment, suspended, for having condoned terrorism, even if the terrorism that she condoned was not in the cause that she favoured.

Should condoning terrorism be a crime? Repellent as condoning it may be, I do not think so. I am not even sure about incitement. After all, everyone is normally held (until proven otherwise) to be responsible for his own acts and it seems to me a poor defence to a wicked deed that someone else encouraged me to do it, even if I was the part of a mob at the time being whipped up to frenzy by a demagogue. There is no better way to infantilise people than to make others responsible for their acts.

I am willing, however, to be persuaded otherwise on this question. I might concede that I am being psychologically unrealistic in expecting everyone to be able to resist the siren-song of accomplished hate-mongers. And if at the time of the Salman Rushdie affair the British authorities had taken a more robust stance towards those who marched through British streets calling for Salman Rushdie’s death, it is even possible that the world might have been saved quite a lot of trouble. The episode pretty clearly revealed how lukewarm or feeble was our defence of free-speech when it was seriously threatened by a determined enemy.

A recent article in the French conservative newspaper, Le Figaro, suggests a chain of causation from the Facebook message mentioned above and the recent spate of attacks by vegans on butchers’ shops in France. They are having their windows smashed or pelted with stones, or been spray-painted with paint resembling blood. The president of the French butchers’ association, said:

Since the attack on the supermarket, we have experience the stoning of our shop windows. The unspeakable statements of a militant vegan following the murder of a butcher at Super U [the supermarket] have resulted in a recrudescence of hostile acts towards us. In the thirty years I have been in this trade, I have never seen anything like it.

Before I go any further, let me say that, though I am not myself vegetarian, I am sympathetic to the arguments of vegetarians. It seems to me almost beyond doubt that for meat to be eaten in the industrial quantities in which it is now eaten throughout the western world, cruelty towards animals, either in the way they are raised or are killed, is inevitable. A video taken clandestinely in the abattoir nearest to my home in France showed the most shocking practices, and I very much doubt that it is the only abattoir in the world in which such things go on. I recently read an excellent book by a French journalist, Olivia Mokiejewski, called People of the Abattoir, in which she described her period as an abattoir worker, supplemented by other enquiries. A vegetarian herself, she is clearly no fanatic, and what she describes is what in their hearts all meat-eaters really know must go on, though they allow themselves to be lulled out of reality by childish images of happy pigs and contented cows. (There is a wonderful fibreglass model of a happy pig that sits outside one of my local butcher’s when he is open.)

This, however, is a far cry from wishing all butchers and abattoir workers dead (at least 50,000 people work in the meat industry in France alone, and one of the virtues of Mokiejewski’s book is that she clearly has human sympathy for them). What shocks about the militant vegan’s comment is its hysterical violence. I think her words are a manifestation of a certain psychological syllogism that seems to me operative in more and more minds:

  • People who feel strongly are good.
  • I express myself strongly, therefore I feel strongly.
  • I feel strongly, therefore I am good.

Moreover, it has long been a human failing to suppose that the length to which one is prepared to go in pursuit of a cause reflects the virtue both of the cause and oneself. Thus the circle between violence of expression and violence of act is closed.

But it is not, I think, for the law to break this circle, to forbid people from saying horrible things. It does, however, make it incumbent on us to moderate our language and to keep a sense of proportion in what we say.

For example, it is not necessary to be an unqualified admirer of Mr Trump to know that comparisons of him with Hitler, which are not infrequent, are absurd. For one thing, it ascribes to him a degree of importance that he does not have. You could only compare Mr Trump to Hitler if you had absolutely no faith in the American political system, and if you thought every last provision in the constitution for restraints on power had been vitiated.

Furthermore, the word ‘resistance’ is likewise absurd, but also dangerous. One opposes politicians, but one resists dictators. If the word ‘resistance’ is used for opposition to Mr Trump, then the impression is given, and presumably is intended to be given, that he is a dictator: and against a dictator, actions may justifiably be taken that are not justified against an ordinary politician. And the habit of using the word ‘resistance’ to mean opposition to policies that you don’t like can become entrenched and will not remain confined to one’s own faction alone. Resistance sanctions violence, and so a society can tear itself apart without having experienced anything remotely to justify, or even explain, it.

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Reader Discussion

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on August 13, 2018 at 10:47:29 am

Hey, wait a minute!

ever been out in a filed of iceberg lettuce when it is "harvested."

A bunch of brutish men wielding machetes lopping off the heads of these lovely, gentle little round globes of tender moist yet crunchy delight!
What must these poor things experience as they hear the approaching footfalls signaling their imminent demise.
Oh the Asteraceae-ity of it all!

Then again, it is certain that the level of commitment to a human's breakfast made by the chicken versus the hog is rather substantial.

Who will speak for the poor head of lettuce?
I will speak for the hog AND fry up a few slices of bacon.

Even my Smurfs LIKE bacon.

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gargamel rules smurfs
on August 13, 2018 at 14:39:41 pm

As for Dalrymple's comment about the Western Europe's assault on speech, I would note that those cultures have erred on the side of statism both in narrowly defining the source, nature and scope of liberty and in aggressively defending their narrow, positivist definition of liberty against verbal offenses. This is a political science course in how NOT to govern, as with so many other negative lessons the US can learn merely from observing Western Europe's endlessly destructive governance. (One could say the same of watching what goes on in California:)

Yet the US in its open-ended embrace of "free-speech" (claimed, falsely, as an inviolable natural right by those who would in most political contexts both deny the freedom of others to speak what they oppose and deny even the existence of natural law) has gone too far legally in cultivating, encouraging, tolerating and protecting verbal assault on the political community and the common culture, particularly standards of decency and moral self-defense. This is more than a liberalizing tendency; it is, as Orwell predicted, a self-destructive tendency which has caused the hyper-politicization of language and rendered numerous words meaningless except as weapons.

It's not OK for Maxine Waters to call President Trump a "traitor" because legally and factually he's not and because doing so invites whack-jobs to attempt assassination, and it's a culturally- unacceptable, Orwellian degradation of language for Trump's ideological opponents to proclaim "vive le resistance" thereby enhancing their danger to the nation.

As for Dalrymple's discourse about the natural feelings of livestock, I'm inclined to agree but don't know what to do about it except decline to eat pork 'cause pigs are smart, repress my thoughts about the suffering of cows and poultry, and recall Rush Limbaugh's reply in 1994 to a caller irate over the miserable fate of chickens: "Madam, God put chickens on this earth for two reasons, breakfast and dinner."

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Pukka Luftmensch
on August 14, 2018 at 00:55:38 am

You seem to be a rational person so I wish you could explain something that bothers me.
You seem to believe that Vegan;s are motivated by sympathy for beef cattle, and unhappiness when they are poorly treated.
Let us suppose that they were successful, and convinced everyone to stop eating beef,. If so, farmers would cease raising beef, and the various breeds of beef cattle would become extinct. The goal of those who agitate against beef eating is thus to achieve the extinction of beef cattle.
Does this amount to a benefit for the members of those species? Is this a reasonable way to express one love for the creatures?
Analogously it is you believe that Hitler's attempt to exterminate Jews was motivated by his love for them, and sympathy for their suffering?
To me, that seems like an insane idea, and it is equally insane when applied to cattle or to any other creature.
Vegan's do not love cattle, they hate them and wish for their extinction.
Human beings make an agreement with domestic animals. They watch over the health safety and living arrangements of the animals, feeding them and taking care of them, until a certain time, when they are slaughtered.
Most domestic animals could not survive in the wild state and the care they receive provides them each with a life. That life has its pleasures and pains and to each animal is better than nothing. Females give birth to and love to their offspring, all derive pleasure from their meals as do all living creatures.
Vegans concentrate the their thoughts on the last moments of the animal's life and recoil in horror from it. They believe they are the animal's best friend, but they are its worst enemy.
They do not realize that reductions in the consumption of beef leads to reduction in the number of beef that are raised, in direct proportion, something advantageous only if the lives of the animals are on the whole unpleasant, something that is probably untrue.
Rather than .fulminating against butchers, they should devote their efforts to trying to develop ways of brightening the lives of cattle.
I cannot help feeling that they feel such guilt at being human beings that they are motivated more by self hate and hatred of other people, than by any conscious hatred of cows. But their actions still harm the cows!
All of this seems almost obvious to me, yet I never hear it. Why is that?

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on August 14, 2018 at 07:43:38 am

Marching the streets of London calling for the death of Salman Rushdie was an incitement to the crime of murder. But how do you arrest several thousand people and what would it cost in time, resources and money to try to prosecute them? On the other hand, Rushdie is still alive and The Satanic Verses is available from Amazon. The liberal Western policy of containment worked in this case. The question is what the police would have done if White Britons had marched in support of killing Ayatollah Khomeini?

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Pierre Pendre
on August 14, 2018 at 13:20:15 pm

Good points well made. I've never thought beneath the surface of the matter and really intended no serious thought beyond my initial reaction to the animals' pain and suffering.

You have shed more light on the matter, enough that I say, as another animal lover would have said,"Crikey, you're onto something." Let's 1) address humane treatment of livestock, 2) take as moral hypocrites those who would preserve cows, chickens and serial murderers at any cost yet condone out of convenience the routine killing of prenatal infants, and 3) eat all the beef and chicken non-subsidized American farmers can produce while still allowing their self-reliant, patriotic children time enough for 4-H.

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Pukka Luftmensch

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