Friday, March 19, 2021

Mean Speech


Sitting on my to-do list for quite awhile is an item called “defamation blogpost”. Yes, sometimes I end up writing about things long after the general hubbub has subsided. Usually that’s because I’m trying to get a handle on how I want to approach them.

In this case I have been mulling over the much talked about defamation of character lawsuit filed by Republican former County Council candidate Lisa Kim against three local Democrats. What has struck me is a particular kind of response to this which speaks not to the validity of the legal case, but to feelings about what I’m calling “mean speech.” Essentially, their argument goes something like this:

“It’s about time someone did something about those people. Now maybe they’ll think twice about talking like that.”

This sounds like “let this be a lesson, or a warning” to people who use “mean speech”.  I don’t like it.

I’m not a fan of the so-called “mean speech” myself, whether used by people of either political persuasion. This is not to say that I have never been critical in my own blog posts or on my social media accounts. But, especially in my blogging, I try very hard to identify the behavior of the person I’m writing about, describe its possible consequences, and reserve my judgement for that. There’s a difference between,

You disgust me. Or,

Your vote on x will harm y. That disgusts me.

Still, it seems to me that a lawsuit on defamation of character is not meant to be a big stick to wave at lots of people whose speech you find objectionable. 

There’s also a difference between published speech, as in a blog, and personal comments on personal social media accounts. For example:

Blog: It is my intention to go and spit on each one of these ugly new buildings if they are built.

Social media: These new buildings will be so ugly it makes me want to spit on them.

You may not like either one, to be sure, but it wouldn’t be accurate to judge them as identical. But I see that many people are doing just that, when it suits them, to discredit the speaker. This makes me uneasy. 

There’s one more thing. The people who rail against “mean speech” are ignoring the fact that perfectly acceptable polite speech can hide all kinds of harm. One can be pleasant in conversation yet advocate for policies that are exclusionary or repressive. Does that make it okay because they are “civil” in the way they go about it? 

It’s not as simple as labeling something as “mean speech” and then moving on. It’s far more complicated than that. It’s not just words that define intent. Behavior matters.

The recent arrest of former Laurel police chief David Crawford for multiple cases of arson over a period of ten years revealed a shocking personal history of perfectly pleasant social media interactions. Here we see someone whose public interactions would earn an A-plus from our local defamation suit fans. I think that’s something to think about. 

We may not like “mean speech” and it’s perfectly fine to say so. But to act as though it is the be-all and end-all for judging someone’s character is facile at best. Now if you are on the receiving end of such speech I’m not suggesting that you have a responsibility to do a deep dive into whether or not the speaker is a decent human being or the embodiment of evil. You’re perfectly justified in registering your objections, or cutting them out of your social media, if that’s an option. Engage. Ignore. It’s your choice.

But maybe the answer isn’t throwing lawsuits around, even if it makes you feel good. 


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