Last week I argued that a Clinton election would not have saved America from her systemic problems. So her election wouldn’t have, in the long run, made that much of a difference. But this week has shown us how much of a difference Trump has made.
If you follow rhetoricians online, you know that there is kind of a sad “I told you so” kind of sentiment right now. It seems that the world has figured out that presidential speech matters, and people who study this kind of thing are like, “No, kidding.”
If I can take a step back from the political ramifications of this last week for a second, which cannot be overstated, one of the lessons from all of this is that words matter. Public speech matters. The way we think about speech, the way we classify it, the words we select, make a difference.
So today I want to talk about two things that have come up in the last week, both of them dealing with how we respond to words. I want to talk about the “free speech” arguments that have been circulating in this environment and the words we use to describe what is going on around us.
First, let’s address Josh Hawley. Let’s talk about him, what he did, why he’s on the outs. Josh Hawley is the youngest sitting senator and has made a name for himself as the most vocal critic of the tech giants. Has, until recently, been seen as a serious contender for a 2024 presidential bid. He was the first to publicly announce he would object to the counting of the electoral votes, and then proceeded to do so even after the violence on the capitol. Hawley has been made infamous by a picture of him giving a raised fist to the crowd outside the capitol just before the violence erupted. Hawley had a book coming out soon that has since been pulled by the publisher.
Josh Hawley’s book was called The Tyranny of Big Tech and was slated to be published with Simon and Schuster. But soon after the events on the capitol the publishing giant issued the statement, “After witnessing the disturbing, deadly insurrection that took place on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., Simon & Schuster has decided to cancel publication of Senator Josh Hawley’s forthcoming book, THE TYRANNY OF BIG TECH.
“We did not come to this decision lightly. As a publisher it will always be our mission to amplify a variety of voices and viewpoints: at the same time we take seriously our larger public responsibility as citizens and cannot support Senator Hawley after his role in what became a dangerous threat to our democracy and freedom.“
Hawley responded “This could not be more Orwellian. Simon & Schuster is canceling my contract because I was representing my constituents, leading a debate on the Senate floor on voter integrity, which they have now decided to redefine as sedition.
“Let me be clear, this is not just a contract dispute. It’s a direct assault on the First Amendment. Only approved speech can now be published. This is the Left looking to cancel everyone they don’t approve of. I will fight this cancel culture with everything I have. We’ll see you in court.”
I don’t know if Hawley is engaging in hyperbole to appeal to his base or if he genuinely doesn’t understand the issue, but let’s be perfectly clear: this is not a first amendment issue. The first amendment says: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Congress shall make no law. The first amendment means that the government won’t restrict your speech. It doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences. Private businesses or organizations are perfectly within their rights to say, “we don’t want to condone this speech and we won’t disseminate it.” Nobody can MAKE a publisher publish something they don’t want to. That’s not what “free speech” means.
In fact, we are pretty hesitant to make people speak if they don’t want to. We won’t make them say the Pledge of Allegiance, for example. There are very limited examples of the kinds of speech we will force people to disseminate. These tend not to be political. The government is generally not in the business of MAKING people say things they don’t want to. That’s called compelled speech. It is very rare. Notable examples in which that has been deemed acceptable are:
- Requiring a cable system to carry local stations
- Mandatory university fees that support groups with which other students disagree
- Mandatory fees on agricultural products to support advertising
- Subpoenas to companies compelling testimony that may be self-incriminatory
- Filing a tax return
- Warnings on alcohol and tobacco products
But we don’t force publishing companies to publish politician’s books. If they decide they don’t want to publish something, they get to make that decision. It’s not a first amendment decision, it’s a business decision.
Similarly, those who are crying foul about Trump being dropped by Twitter are equally as groundless.
When you join Twitter you agree to terms of service. Void those terms of service and you can get kicked off. That’s really all there is to it.
There is no Big Tech conspiracy against anyone. There are expectations for behavior that the President failed to meet. Across the board.
This is also not a first amendment issue. Trump is not being censored or silenced. He still has more voice than anybody in the US. He is just choosing not to use it. He could hold a press conference, do an interview, drop a press release – he has a whole room specifically for talking to the press and the American people at his disposal. He’s just choosing not to use any of these venues. He likes Twitter and Facebook and now that those are not available to him, he is refusing to talk to the American people.
The President has more access to the press and the American people than anyone in the nation. This is a time of unparalleled crisis. He is simply choosing not to step into a leadership role. He is electing not to speak to us in any in any of the multiple ways he has available to him because he prefers social media. He’s behaving like a child.
The president refuses to give us his words right now. It could be because he knows words matter so much and it was his words that pushed us to this point. His words have been weaponized. So what can he say now?
It is interesting, then, to think about the words we use in this critical moment. How are we describing the world we inhabit? What are the ramifications of that? If, as I posit, words are so powerful, how are they making a difference right now?
How do you refer to the people at the Capitol on Wednesday?
Were they protesters? Protest is a constitutional right. It is the means by which we have gained suffrage and civil rights throughout our history. It is, in many ways, a very American activity. Many people argued that BLM protesters and those who kneeled at football games were intensely patriotic in their actions. If you label this group as protesters are you putting them in the same category? Protesters have rights, and in some people’s minds are heroic. By labeling them protesters you given them the protection of the Constitution.
Were they rioters? A riot doesn’t have the same protection of the first amendment that a protest does. It is also not as organized. A riot is chaotic and frenzied. There is no organizing aim or purpose to a riot. It is just a violent disturbance of the peace. Riot says it was out of control. Were they completely out of control? Was there an organizing principle behind anything? How much of this did they plan? A riot is not necessarily political. That could make a difference in the kinds of crimes people are charged with or guilty of.
Were they insurgents? An insurgent is a rebel or revolutionary, though it tends to have a much more negative connotation than either of those words. If that is the case, then they not only do not have constitutional protections, but they were trying to overthrow the government – the very constitution that protects protesters. An insurgent is different than a rioter, as well. An insurgent is not just somebody who causes some violent unrest – an insurgent is someone who is, through planning and because of an ideology, rebelling against the established government.
Were they insurrectionists? Insurrection is a violent uprising against an authority or government. This is an ideological, organized riot. It is violence with a plan or a goal. Insurrection isn’t all that different from insurgency. An insurrection is an organized opposition to an authority or a mutiny. It is a rebellion. An insurgency is a rebellion or a revolt. Either way the attack is ideological and not just a frenzied, chaotic explosion, like a riot.
Or some people have described the events as domestic terrorism. Terrorism is the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government or its citizens to further certain political or social objectives. Terrorism is a concerted, organized effort to literally scare a government or group of people into advancing a political or ideological aim. People have described the people and events of the 6th in this way because the crowd turned to violence in order to threaten law makers. Their seeming goal was to try to scare Congress into overturning the 2020 election. They seemed to be trying to use violence to intimidate members of the government to ignore their constitutional duties and install an unelected leader. Because of this, some people have described the people who attacked the capitol as terrorists.
The reason it is important to think about how we label the people and events of Wednesday the 6th is because what we call them will affect how we respond to them. The they can only be charged with the crimes they are accused of committing. So how are we defining this?
If they were protesters, then we have to think of them in terms of the first amendment. They were violent protesters, to be sure, but protest and free speech go hand in hand. If we refer to them as protesters this becomes a constitutional issue.
If they are rioters, it becomes hard to assign responsibility. A riot is out of control. It can’t be contained. Rioters aren’t really in their right minds. Certainly, you can press charges against rioters, but there is not an organizing factor or a way to understand rioters. They are just sort of mindless. These also may not be seen as ideological crimes. They may be just vandalism or violence. A riot is not necessarily a political crime.
Insurgents and insurrectionists require political responses. These are not just vandalism or assault but politically motivated crimes that require that kind of response. It is more than just breaking a window or assaulting a police officer. These are ideological and political crimes.
As for terrorism, while the temptation is strong to condemn these actions in the strongest terms, we must consider the implications of that. A terroristic act requires anti-terrorism measures. Are we ready for another PATRIOT ACT? Some of us may remember the days before TSA and the changes 9/11 made to our lives. Some of us may remember the fear and the new kinds of surveillance we suddenly had to contend with. Are we ready for lawmakers to respond to an act of terrorism on American soil with the same kind of fervor again? At the same time, we must consider the racialized nature of the word “terrorism.” We can’t NOT call it terrorism just because it was homegrown when we have spent two decades vilifying brown people for something just a few extremists did. White people are just as capable of terrorism. This is a tricky word. We have to be very careful with how and where we use it.
Finally, the last word that deserves our attention today is one that has gained a lot of traction recently: “coup.”
A coup is the removal of an existing government from power, usually through violent means. Typically, it is an illegal, unconstitutional seizure of power by a political faction, the military, or a dictator. Or a sudden, violent, and illegal seizure of power from a government.
While the events at the capitol seem to meet this basic definition, as I constantly tell my students, the dictionary is not the end-all-be-all. People who study coups have certain criteria for what counts as a coup. What is interesting about this event is there is disagreement between the experts about whether this was technically a coup. Some are arguing that while the events of the 6th meet some of those criteria, they do not meet all. The claim is that coup is generally by the military, the paramilitary, or by actors of the state. This was a civilian uprising. So insurrection is probably the better term. Sedition is probably best for Trump.
Now, there is an interesting twist on that. While the attack itself might not have been by actors of the state, it was an actor of the state who was behind it. The President may have planned and orchestrated the entire thing, but it is clear he encouraged and supported it. So what that means for thinking about this in terms of what we call things is a bit weird. But many experts seem to think this was not a coup, but an election uprising or sedition.
But others are describing this as a self-coup, or autogolpe. A self-coup or autocoup is when a nation’s leader, despite having come to power through legal means, dissolves or renders powerless a legislature and unlawfully assumes powers not granted under normal circumstances. They might also annul the nation’s constitution or suspend civil courts. Basically, instead of trying to overthrow a government, the leader is trying to stay IN power.
Trump’s actions and the antics of his supporters may seem to fit the description of a self-coup more than a traditional coup d’état. There was no military take over, but there was an attempt to KEEP a leader in power illegitimately.
But what everyone who studies these kinds of things agrees on, whether you think it was a coup, a self-coup, or just an insurrection, is that Trump spurred it on. Trump’s rhetoric encouraged the mob and created an environment in which violence against the sitting government was not just possible, but likely, if not inevitable. And that, my friends, is sedition.
So what is sedition? Sedition is conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state. Which is precisely what Trump did. He encouraged his supporters to try and bully Congress into overturning the democratically elected results of an election. He supported violence in the face of democracy. To return to what we were talking about in the first part of this episode, there are things that are protected by the first amendment and things that are not. Sedition is not. Once again, words matter.
The point of all of this is that the WAY we talk about these things matter. We can’t just throw around the term “free speech” or “first amendment” whenever we feel like it because those things have specific meanings that apply in particular situations. And when it comes to how we define things, if we want the punishment to fit the crime, first we have to define the crime correctly. The way we talk about these things matters. It matters an awful lot.
So be selective in the words that you use. Carefully curate your rhetoric as you discuss these things. And be nice to the communication and English scholars you know right now. We’re totally stressing out about this.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.