Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Psychology, Fear and Politics

One of my favorite topics, as you will find here, is the use of fear appeals in political rhetoric. It’s a simple yet effective way for a leader to get the electorate to do what he wants them to do. So I read with great interest this article from the New Republic.

There are two really important points in this article. First is the depth of the connection between fear/mortality and political decisions. Second is the lengths the Bush administration went to exploit that (including exploiting 9/11 imagery).

The basic gist of the Judis article in TNR is that a group of political psychologists, through a variety of experiments, found a connection between being forced to confront one's own mortality and political inclinations and behavior. For example, in a study published after the 04 election they found a connection between reminders of 9/11 and feelings of mortality (duh). They also found a connection between reminders of 9/11 and increased votes for Bush (again, duh).

The control group that completed a personality survey, but did not do the mortality exercises, predictably favored Kerry by four to one. But the students who did the mortality exercises favored Bush by more than two to one. This strongly suggested that Bush's popularity was sustained by mortality reminders. The psychologists concluded in a paper published after the election that the government terror warnings, the release of Osama bin Laden's video on October 29, and the Bush campaign's reiteration of the terrorist threat (Cheney on election eve: "If we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again") were integral to Bush's victory over Kerry. "From a terror management perspective," they wrote, "the United States' electorate was exposed to a wide-ranging multidimensional mortality salience induction." (Judis, para. 22)

At the end of the article Judis comes to the same conclusions that I have. First, for the public in general thoughts of 9/11 have been crowded out by Bush's incompetence on things like New Orleans, not to mention Iraq, and the GOP in general is being pulled down with him. This is why Democrats won in 2006. The “public mind” is not thinking about terrorism and for the most part 9/11 is far enough behind us that it doesn’t have the impact it once did. This is why we see the conservative rhetoric turn to nonsensical and offensive comments like calling for another 9/11.

Second, the one GOP candidate who can win in 2008 is Rudy, because he is the only one who can, in the “public mind”, invoke 9/11 in a credible way, using it as a mortality reminder and presenting himself as a protector and the Democrats as weak (the same way Bush did to Kerry). Can you picture Mitt Romney trying to use 9/11 in the way Bush did?

However, Judis is a little overly optimistic in hoping that "the moment of September 11--and the reminder of mortality that it brought--may well have passed. And with it, too, the ascendancy of politicians who exploited the fear of death that lies within us all." It would be nice if it were so, but fear is part of politics. Rudy started it months ago when he echoed Cheney with his “a vote for the Democrats is a vote to get us attacked” comment.

Judis even points out that in one experiment when the subjects are told to take their time and think about the message rationally they are less likely to be influenced by the mortality reminder. The subjects that are not encouraged to take their time and think have the opposite response. The same voters that were moved by Bush’s fear appeals also tend to be Rudy voters. Which just goes to show, after Katrina, the quality of health care (even for the insured), the state of our foreign policy, an increasing gap between the top and bottom of the economic scale and the general moral bankruptcy of the Bush administration, the only thing the GOP has left is fear.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

More UK Politics

I am enjoying my time here in the UK quite a bit. It is especially nice in relation to my interest in comparative politics. There are obviously some big differences in what the media report and the topics of discussion in the politics.

There are a few things at the top of my list of interesting stories today. First, the BBC had a story about a cyber attack on Estonia. You can read about it here. Our modern technology presents new opportunities for foreign threats as you’ll see in the article.

Second, Salman Rushdie is once again under attack from religious fanatics. He was dubbed Sir Salman Rushdie recently, which has made a few people unhappy.

Finally, to the politics of England. Social engineering is on the agenda for the Tories here. For those of you who don’t know, the Tories are the English equivalent of Republicans, except they don’t seem to have a Dobson wing to their party. London is Washington turned upside down. It’s a place where the left and center-left run the show. Even my Tory friend here referred to Tony Blair as “center of the road.”

The social engineering the Tories are proposing is what we in the states would refer to as a marriage tax credit. They want to give a tax break of about £20 a week (what amounts to $40) to married couples. This, of course, is in the hopes that this will encourage couples to get married and stay married rather than living in sin.

They argue that this would save marriages, give children better homes and “prevent social breakdown.” Sounds nice; at least the conservatives here openly call their policies social engineering instead of pretending to be libertarians. I would say there’s nothing wrong with tax credits for married couples, especially those with children. I would also ask, why it is that children whose parents get divorced don’t deserve to have those extra resources and if there is actually a person alive who would say “this marriage isn’t working out, but I really can’t give up that extra $40 a week.”

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Where is the liberal bias at the BBC?

Pictured here: Abi, me, Joanna plus baby #2 and our English friend Heather; above our heads, Durham Cathedral.

The media coverage of the Live Earth events has been a long exercise in Eric Alterman’s question, “what liberal media?” Before leaving for England, where I currently sit typing, I was driving around listening to I don’t know what generic rock radio station. The station was playing a Lenny Kravitz song, after which the DJ mentioned that Kravitz was going to be playing at Live Earth, “Al Gore’s thing” he added, a bit dismissively. The next day, the same station, same DJ, played the same Lenny Kravitz song (surprise, surprise, corporate radio, the same six songs over and over). This time the DJ again mentioned that Kravitz was playing at Live Earth.

Then came the talking point. “Ya know, a listener e-mailed me and made a good point. How much energy are they going to waste just putting on that concert? Just something to think about I guess.”

And so the same right wing fallacy was repeated over and over. I heard it from some radio DJ. It was on Drudge. Worst of all…I heard it on the Beeb; of all the places in the world to hear a right wing talking point, the supposedly “liberal” BBC. I’ve been in England since Thursday. Every time I’ve seen some coverage of Live Earth since I’ve been here the report has made some mention of the energy that would be used for the concert.

Even the coverage during the concert involved some kind of counter message. The BBC interviewer was talking to a global warming skeptic while the concert was in the background. Now, I’m all for multiple viewpoints being heard, even if I believe that one of those viewpoints is ridiculous. My complaint isn’t that someone I disagree with is having his say. What bothers me is that even after the right wing talking points get inserted we still have to hear claims of liberal bias.

Where is that liberal media I keep hearing about?

The other point is that this claim is a fallacy; a diversion. You don’t need to address the claims being made by Al Gore and environmental scientists. You just need to call rock stars hypocrites.

Monday, June 25, 2007

James Taylor on Sesame Street

Our daughter Abi has a Sesame Street video that she really loves. It's a collection of songs. Her favorite is the James Taylor song.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

New PA 16.com article

I have a piece published at NewPA16.com on Internet radio. Please take the time to check it out, but more importantly go to SaveNetRadio.org.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Fear Appeal in Republican Politics

Despite the popular narrative in media and political circles (both liberal and conservative) that the GOP is doomed in 2008 I still have a feeling that at noon on January 20, 2009 we will see the Republican Party standing on a dais in Washington exclaiming, “reports of my death were greatly exaggerated.” This is largely due to the fact that Rudy Giuliani is leading in most state and national polls and is even competitive in the South Carolina primary (Edsall, 2007). I think America could elect saint Rudy of 9/11 even if they get to know the Rudy that existed on September 10th.

The contradiction of Giuliani as the great hope of the GOP is fairly simple to find. You see it in the first few paragraphs of the recent profile in The New Republic. One voter explains himself as being “on all the social issues…to the right of him” (Edsall). Yet this voter is still supporting Giuliani. Which would leave one scratching their head every time they hear a cable news pundit pontificating on the inevitable demise of the Giuliani presidential campaign.

The most important conclusion that one would have to reach here is that the politics of the GOP coalition (and any political coalition from any location or time in human history) is a little more complicated than what the media and political commentators would have the public believe. Then again, what isn’t? Many elements are at work and everyone has an explanation for Giuliani’s success. The most popular being that the only thing that anyone knows about him comes from twenty-four hours of his life in September of 2001.

This would be what one could call the Lippmann explanation of the “world outside and the pictures in our heads.” Lippmann wrote about how the public comes to know a figure through a fictitious persona created by media. These personas can obviously be both positive and negative. Roosevelt is a hero and Trotsky is a villain. Lippmann wrote that “beside hero-worship there is the exorcism of devils. By the same mechanism through which heroes are incarnated, devils are made” (p. 7). As an example here, Giuliani has the added bonus of being on the receiving end of both treatments.

While the media portrayal of Giuliani as an individual political figure is part of the “picture in the public’s head,” it is only part of why he is successful and, more importantly, why the GOP could still rise like a phoenix from the ashes of 2006. What is more important here is the rhetorical use of fear and patriotism. This is a fairly broad subject that needs a more in depth examination that this post will not allow, but it is essential to present a cursory discussion in order to move on to another Republican figure, Peggy Noonan.

Giuliani, I would argue, doesn’t employ a very subtle use of the fear appeal. Recently he told an audience in New Hampshire that if a Democrat is elected to the presidency in 2008 there will be another attack of the same magnitude as 9/11. This is the modus operandi for the Republicans. I suppose that the liberal reaction to this would most likely be to accuse of Giuliani of fear mongering. That may be a valid point, but fear appeals can also be valid and effective rhetorical tools, when used properly.

Michael William Pfau (2007) and Douglas Walton (1996) present two characteristics that are essential here. First, the threat in the fear appeal must be credible (or “close at hand”). Second, the solution to the threat must be possible to achieve. For Giuliani the threat is terrorism, the solution is “vote Giuliani.” He creates an effective fear appeal. In fact, the voter from The New Republic article cites Giuliani’s understanding of terrorism as the reason for supporting Giuliani.

As Pfau notes, in Rhetoric Aristotle makes the argument that fear “makes people inclined to deliberation” (p. 221). This brings us to the validity of the fear appeal. While Giuliani’s argument is certainly effective, whether or not it is fallacious is another issue. Even more questionable is whether or not it will make people “inclined to deliberation.” The intention of this argument is demonizing his opposition more than anything else. Which brings us to Peggy Noonan’s recent editorial in the Wall Street journal.

Noonan is lamenting the manner in which the Bush administration is treating the rest of the conservative movement. The source of the fissure is the immigration bill that is being pushed by the president and members of congress from both parties. In a speech in Georgia President Bush stated:

Those determined to find fault with this bill will always be able to look at a narrow slice of it and find something they don't like," the president said. "If you want to kill the bill, if you don't want to do what's right for America, you can pick one little aspect out of it. (Feller, 2007).
This is not quite the same appeal that Giuliani was making but it is from the same strain of authoritarianism that currently runs through Republican politics. Where Giuliani employs fear Bush questions the patriotism of his opponents.

Again, Lippmann is useful here. He argues that within groups “there is infinitely less suppression of individual difference” (p. 8). Here is one point where I would disagree with Lippmann and the current conservative movement is a good illustration. The reason we are currently seeing the cracks in their coalition is because within subgroups of society there is infinitely more suppression of difference. Which is what Noonan is addressing.

Noonan asks why the White House would “speak so insultingly, with such hostility, of opponents who are concerned citizens? And often, though not exclusively, concerned conservatives?” Anyone who has attempted even the most cursory examination of the rhetoric of the right in general and this administration specifically would find the phrase “often, though not exclusively” to be a bit of an understatement. From the war on terror, to the war in Iraq to really any other issue (especially on foreign policy) this administration and the conservative movement have employed tactics of insult and hostility against almost exclusively groups and individuals outside of the conservative movement. There have been occasional conservative individuals who have fallen prey to these attacks. Lawrence Lindsey and Paul O”Neil come to mind, but they were attacked for individual acts of “disloyalty,” not because they were ideological opponents.

Gil Smart makes the argument for conservatism as tribalism. He seems to be looking at the situation from an internal view, examining the internal machinations of the movement and what it is doing to itself. I would add to his analysis what is happening outside of conservatism and how it is causing the internal fissure. What is happening outside is that the public is rejecting it. Unsurprisingly, the movement is going into an internal authoritarian mode of operation. Andrew Perrin, citing Marcus, argues that “the threat of unsettled times may send cultures retreating into an inward-focused authoritarian stance” (p. 169).

This is what we are currently witnessing from Noonan and Bush. We are clearly living in unsettled times for the GOP and the conservative movement. They are expressing this uncertainty through the cannibalization of their own movement. They are attacking their own. I would argue that what is happening is the natural reaction of the people who are in charge of any collective, be it a political movement or a nation.

The people in charge of the movement want to maintain order. Order means their continued power, disarray means change. There are two common elements we can see in the rhetoric. First, they have to convince their followers that there is an external threat (i.e. terrorists, immigrants, etc.). In this case the externals are immigrants. Second, there has to be an internal threat as well. In this case, as in every case with the Bush administration, the internal threat is anyone who disagrees with the administration’s position. In the war on terror those people are anyone who questions the president’s policies. In the case of the immigration bill it’s the president’s conservative opponents in congress.

It’s not possible that good people can have honest disagreements on the best course of action. The explanation for an individual’s disagreement with president Bush is that they “don’t want to do what’s right for America.” With Iraq the answer is that opponents want to let France decide when America can defend itself. The examples of this rhetoric and those who employ it against, almost exclusively, liberals and Democrats are too numerous to mention. Which is part of what makes Peggy Noonan’s editorial so intellectually dishonest.

At this point this is the one tactic that the Republicans have left for electoral victory in 2008; the fear appeal. Give the audience an external threat, tell them it can be defeated and tell them that anyone who opposes their method of victory just doesn’t want to do what’s right for America. The big question is, when the Republican candidate for president, whether it is Giuliani or anyone else, stands in front of an audience and tells them that voting for a Democrat for president is literally a threat to national security, will we be able to count on Peggy Noonan, not to mention every conservative who is currently feeling insulted by the White House, to stand and ask why that candidate would “speak so insultingly, with such hostility, of opponents who are concerned citizens?”


Edsall, Thomas. (2007). Party Boy. The New Republic, 21 May, p. 26-32.

Feller, Ben. (2007). Bush Attacks Immigration Deal Opponents. Retrieved 1 June 2007 from http://www.breitbart.com/article.php?id=D8PE5LPO0&show_article=1.

Lippmann, Walter. (1922). Public Opinion. New York, NY: Free Press Paperbacks.

Noonan, Peggy. (2007). Too Bad. Retrieved 1 June 2007 from http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/pnoonan/.

Perrin, Andrew. (2005). National Threat and Political Culture: Authoritarianism, Antiauthoritarianism, and the September 11 Attacks. Political Psychology, 26 (2),
p. 167-194.

Pfau, Michael William. (2007). Who’s Afraid of Fear Appeals? Contingency, Courage, and Deliberation in Rhetorical Theory and Practice. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 40 (2),
p. 216-237.

Smart, Gil. (2007). The Movement Kills the Message. Smart Remarks. Retrieved on 2 June 2007 from http://blogs.lancasteronline.com/smartremarks/2007/06/02/the-movement-kills-the-message/.

Walton, Douglas. (2007). Practical Reasoning and the Structure of Fear Appeal
Arguments. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 29 (4), p. 301-313.

Monday, April 16, 2007


I don't know why it took me this long to post this. This is one of my favorite quotes from a Vonnegut book. It was in the obituary in the NY Times.

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”
-Eliot Rosewater

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Is it necessary to end the culture wars?

An interesting piece in the latest issue of the Atlantic poses a simple solution for the culture war: let it be fought on the state level rather than the federal. This proposal got me thinking about a few different ideas. The proposal itself is not without its merits, although I would probably come down on the side of not agreeing with Jonathan Rauch, the author. I’ll address my main disagreement later.

I would ask whether or not it is even necessary to end the culture wars. A democratic republic is a system that involves (putting it in my own words, but more than likely borrowing from Habermas or secondary literature on Habermas) some kind of public debate that works toward defining a national identity or shaping a policy. As Schudson (1997) writes, “if democratic talk is talk among people of different values and different backgrounds, it is also profoundly uncomfortable” (p. 299).

Isn’t the rancor and disagreement part of the process and an inherent quality of the system? I suppose I would go right to the heart of Rauch’s column and say that ending the culture wars may not even be a necessary, desirable or even attainable goal.

The real problem with the culture wars is that, from my above definition, they are more focused on “defining a national identity” as opposed to “shaping a policy.” Rauch argues that “even moral absolutists …should grudgingly support pluralism, because it makes the world safe for their moral activism by keeping the cultural peace” (para. 16). There are a few problems with this argument.

First, I would argue that pluralism is inherently not “cultural peace.” Andrew Fiala provides a useful definition here, stating that, “according to pluralism, each of the variety of ways in which we might pursue the good can still be described as good without radically changing the meaning of the term ‘good.’ Or, as Rawls says, each of the ways in which reasonable persons disagree can still be called reasonable” (p. 108).

There is the rub; the word “reasonable.” How do you define it and who gets to make that decision? That is where the culture wars really take place. For example, most liberals (whatever that word means) support the ideal of government neutrality on religion. That is part of their definition of “America” (whatever that word means). Many Evangelical Christians see Christianity as an essential part of the defining of America. To the latter group the very idea of being neutral on religion is not, as Rawls says, reasonable, and is certainly not American. To quote Jerry Falwell: “the idea that religion and politics don’t mix was invented by the devil to keep Christians from running their own country” (Goodman). We can give the devil his due, but I think Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Thomas Paine contributed at least a little to Falwell’s problems.

That is the second problem with the Rauch quote. Absolutists see pluralism as an attack on their absolutism. For the absolutist there are only two possibilities: their viewpoint (e.g. the correct one) and every other viewpoint (e.g. the wrong one). There is no pluralism possible. There is only a world where their viewpoint is dominant over all others or a world where their viewpoint is oppressed. You can find an example of this thinking in a short blurb Robert Bork wrote for the National Review about a year ago. Bork (2005) actually made the argument that censorship created more freedom because, “people forced to live in an increasingly brutalized culture are, in a very real sense, not wholly free.” Bork may be close to making a point, but in the article he includes the Rolling Stones as part of that “brutalized culture.” Not to mention the cliché that “one man’s pornography is another man’s art.”

For the Borkistas the presence of those who want to live life in a different manner or even simply disagree with conservatism is an affront. This brings me to my final argument for liberalism, or maybe more appropriately, libertarianism. It’s a very simple philosophy of governance on so called culture war issues. A more liberal society is a better society because conservative individuals are still free to lead a conservative life. They don’t even have to like homosexuals, they just aren’t allowed to attempt to impose upon or interfere with a homosexual person’s life. Equally, it would be unacceptable for someone living a more liberal lifestyle to attempt to impose that upon more conservative individuals.

In other words, so long as someone causes you no harm in body or property they are free to live their life as they see fit. This is an idea that is a few centuries old, yet it is actually under attack today. The conservative argument against it amounts to saying “your existence offends me and doesn’t fit my definition of what our national identity should be; therefore I want some government action to make your life harder.”

So with pluralism you end up continuing to have multiple viewpoints struggling to define what it means to be American. If all of these ideologies continue to exist they will continue to fight with one another. The photograph that accompanies the Rauch article speaks volumes to this fact. On one side you have a group of people holding pro-choice signs, on the other a group of people holding signs supporting the confirmation of now Chief Justice John Roberts. Oddly enough the blue v. red color scheme has been reversed in the photo. Two of the sign holders standing closest to the dividing line between the two groups stare across at one another. The pro-choice person looking with a condescending smile that seems to signal pity and disdain for those poor, hateful fools standing across from her; fitting perfectly with the stereotype of the liberal elitist Rush Limbaugh rails against every day. On the other side a man with a haircut and glasses that scream “I believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible,” stares down his political opponents with a glair of hatred that would make the vengeful, “Tim LaHaye” version of Jesus proud. The photograph sums up perfectly the “profoundly uncomfortable” feeling that Schudson describes in the quote above.

The photo is the culture war summed up in one picture. Or, maybe more accurately, it is the over simplified, didactic representation of the culture war that is presented by the media and the most extreme soldiers on both sides of that war. I can’t help but think of the pro-life atheists who don’t fit into that picture (yes, there are a few of them out there).

At the meeting place of the stares of the two unnamed individuals in the photo is not just the culture war but, in some ways, the degradation of the Habermasian ideal of the public sphere. Habermas (1989) envisioned a sphere of debate “made up of private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state” (p. 176). One essential element of articulating of the society’s needs was rational thought. There is more than likely no rational thought in those angry eyes.

This is exactly the point of why the culture war will never be brought to an end. If the debate were over policy questions you could still possibly have rationality. One could present evidence to support a policy, his opponent could counter and they could politely disagree on the best course of action, or one could possibly persuade the other to change positions. In the culture wars we are dealing with something entirely different. We are having a debate about identity.

In this debate it doesn’t matter if you say to someone that it is only fair that two gay men be allowed to enter into a union with one another, that is recognized by the state and that this union should carry with it the same legal rights as a heterosexual marriage. You can cite studies that show these unions will have social benefits. It won’t matter because you’re really having a debate about how we define what it means to be an American, and two men kissing is definitely not part of that definition for some people. Not just that, but for some people actively working to prevent those two men from kissing is an essential part of what it means to be an American.

Arguments over identity do not happen in the rational realm of the Habermasian public sphere. They are filled with emotionally charged verbal and visual imagery. Take for example prayer in school as part of the American identity. To make the emotionally charged argument the conservative will of course cite Abbington v Schempp (1963), and by extension the entire decade of the 1960’s, as an attack on their beliefs.

This is a perfect example of the “identity debate” and how it is more of an emotional discussion than a rational policy discussion. First, the sixties evoke a certain visceral reaction from conservatives. It carries images of debauchery, anti-Americanism and a general rejection of “Christian values,” as they perceive it. Abbington v Schempp is a big part of all of that.

I would argue that the proper location to place the origins of prayer in school as a legal issue (not to mention political liberalism) is not the sixties but the forties. In the two cases Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940) and West Virginia State Board of Ed. v. Barnette (1943) we find the real rationale for the prohibition of school coercion in praying.

From the perspective conservative Christians it is rhetorically less effective to cite those two cases in your fight against the secular onslaught. The 1940s don’t exactly evoke the same emotional imagery as the 1960s, it’s easier to rail against hippies spitting on the troops as opposed to Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson.

Rauch’s proposal doesn’t really end the culture wars. All it is does is create 51 separate battle fields on which these identity defining wars are being fought. Instead of just having to worry about “activist judges” on the federal bench, suddenly we’re having long, drawn out fights of Borkian proportions in every state and at the federal level. Because, let’s be honest, even if the Court said tomorrow that all of these decisions should be made at the state level, all sides of every issue would still be spending resources trying to influence the federal government to make legal changes agreeable to their political viewpoint.

So, is it necessary to end the culture wars? I would say no. It shouldn’t bother us that our nation is divided over certain issues. What should be scary is the prospect of the discord ending.

Bork, Robert. (2005). How to increase liberty in America: Ten suggestions. National Review, 19 December.

Fiala, Andrew. (2002). Toleration and pragmatism. Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 16(2).

Goodman, Ellen. (2007). The atheist: Religion and politics. Intelligencer Journal, 23 March. (also available here).

Habermas, Jurgen. (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.

Rauch, Jonathan. (2007). A separate peace. Retrieved from Atlantic.com 19 March 2007.

Schudson, Michael. (1997). Why Conversation is Not the Soul of Democracy. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 14, 297-309.

Friday, March 30, 2007

The Threat is the Message

Last week there was an incident involving a tech blogger receiving anonymous death threats. The incident itself is not really what I’m concerned with at this point. If you want to read about you can find information here. What really concerns me is something I read in this BBC article commenting on the aftermath of the events. It appears that the things that this anonymous individual or individuals did were pretty over the top.

In what seems to be a rush to preempt the calls for regulation of the medium Tim O’Reilly said the following:

The fact that there's all these really messed-up people on the internet is not a statement about the internet. It is a statement about those people and what they do and we need to basically say that you guys are doing something unacceptable and not generalise it into a comment about this is what's happening to the blogosphere.

The first thing I thought of here was the McLuhan reaction to David Sarnoff saying “The products of modern science are not in themselves good or bad; it is the way that they are used that determines their value.” I would repeat McLuhan’s thoughts when he said “there is simply nothing in the [O’Reilly] statement that will bear scrutiny, for it ignores the nature of the medium, of any and all media, in the true Narcissus style of one hypnotized by the amputation and extension of his own being in a new technical form.”

Isn’t the Sierra incident a consequence of the nature of the medium? The anonymity allowed by blogging makes it a perfect medium for this kind of harassment. It’s better than a threatening phone call or an angry note. There is a difference between mailing someone a picture of their face with some change made in pen as opposed to the things that Photoshop will allow you to do. Digital media, especially blogging, takes bullying to a new level and that is part of the nature of the medium.

Now this doesn’t mean that there aren’t good things about the nature of blogging, or the web in general. It does create greater access to information. The problem is that it also allows for a new kind of bullying that may have an impact on people that is different from other media. Some of the images that Sierra included on her website that were created by individuals who were harassing her are disturbing. It would not have been possible to create those images without digital media (i.e. Photoshop).

The question now is whether or not this should be grounds for government action. In cases of speech I tend to come down on the libertarian side. What I would say is that no special legislation is needed or, even if it was needed, possible. First, there are laws against harassment or fighting words. We don’t really need a special set of laws that explicitly mention blogs.

Additionally, the problem of defining what content should be regulating creates an array of legal questions to complex and numerous to even begin to discuss in one blog post.

All that said, I think it is safe to say that these threatening posts are not
protected by freedom of speech. They are clearly threatening remarks. Freedom of speech is not at issue in this situation. It will be at issue with attempts at regulating speech in the future.

Simply put:

“I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.”