Reasonable vs Unreasonable Voices

Ken AshfordCrime, Right Wing and Inept Media, Women's IssuesLeave a Comment

I’ve written recently about the inflammatory rhetoric of Fox News, Bill O’Reilly, etc., and how it can lead to events like the murder of Dr. George Tiller this weekend.

Some people get it.  This is a thoughtful post from Rod Dreher, a conservative, at

Unsurprisingly, on this blog’s comboxes and elsewhere, some are blaming the entire pro-life movement for Tiller’s murder, and blaming specifically pro-life rhetoric for supposedly inciting the abortion doc’s murderer. There’s not much point in objecting to this at this point; the people who say such things are looking for an excuse to despise the pro-life cause, and this lawless vigilante has now given them one.

It is worth reflecting on, though, to what extent our words are seeds for violent deeds. It cannot be true, however much some pro-choicers may want it to be, that pro-lifers are obliged to shut up and go away because one violent kook killed an abortion doctor. Think about the harsh criticism of the US torture policy under Bush. If, God forbid, someone infuriated by that committed murder against one of the Bush officials who devised the policy, it would be a heinous crime, but most people would understand that torture critics could not be blamed for it. Nor would the severity of their moral indictment of torture be at issue. If torture — or abortion, or war, or discrimination, or any other morally consequential issue — is wrong, then we are obliged to speak out against it, no matter what. George Tiller was a violent man, and the fact that he died violently, at the hands of a criminal, does not change who he was and what he did for a living.

But we can’t let ourselves off that easily. Our words are not spoken in a vacuum. In our media today, they are amplified to a degree previously unimaginable. It seems to me that this puts a special obligation on all of us, whatever our cause or political stance, to choose carefully what we say, and how we say it. I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules here, but the virtue of prudence in speech really is important to observe. We live in a time when red-hot rhetoric, on both the right and the left, sells; I saw a TV producer friend over the weekend here, a guy who used to work for cable news back in the US, and told him how frustrated I was that there is no place on broadcast media for nuanced or moderate voices. They don’t want light, they want heat, and the only way to get heat is to have intense friction. So our media culture valorizes intense emotion, and we are acculturated to embracing our passions, especially our anger, as a matter of justice and authenticity.

This will not end well for us. It never has.

And what of O’Reilly, who has over the last few years launched aabout 29 rants against Dr. Tiller?  What did he have to say last night?  Media critic Howard Kurtz:

O’Reilly is entitled to defend himself, and he in no way condoned what happened. But the man was murdered in church. I was surprised that, along with his reminder that Tiller had been called a baby killer, O’Reilly didn’t issue a ringing denunciation of the shooting and anyone who thought it was justified. The occasion, in my view, called for it; he chose a different approach.

O’Reilly’s approach was to condemn Tiller’s murder (in passing), and then use the event to not only defend himself but, notably, reiterate his attacks on Tiller.  Nice.

By the way, Media Matters uncovered an O’Reilly radio show where he discussed “getting his hands on Tiller”.