In the GOP debate, candidates must be asked whether words have consequences.

The GOP Candidates Must Discuss Whether Words Have Consequences

The GOP Candidates Must Discuss Whether Words Have Consequences

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Dec. 15 2015 6:34 PM

The One Question the GOP Candidates Won’t Want to Answer Tuesday Night

Do words have consequences?

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Hey Carly, do words matter? Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina at the Iowa State Fair, Oct. 31, 2015, in Des Moines.

Photo by Steve Pope/Getty Images

At Tuesday’s GOP debate, we need to hear more substance and less bluster from the candidates on national security, the economy, terrorism, the environment (ha!), judicial appointments, gun rights, criminal justice, and other important policy matters, perhaps in these charged days more than ever.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate and hosts the podcast Amicus.

But there is one simple question I would like the candidates to consider Tuesday night: Do they believe words have consequences? If so, which words have consequences, and what consequences might they have? It’s a simple thought experiment but one that sometimes works best in the abstract or—even better—as applied to other people’s words as opposed to one’s own.

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Let’s stipulate for our purposes that none of the candidates will be willing to talk about the uptick in attacks on abortion clinics, or black Americans, or immigrants, or mosques, or on Muslim Americans in the past few weeks and months as a result of incendiary words they have spoken. Certainly Donald Trump will deflect responsibility for the Nazi slogans and calls for violence against a protester shouted out at a rally just one day before the debate.

But we already know that when Carly Fiorina is asked whether there is any possible connection between her persistent claim that Planned Parenthood sells baby parts for fat wads of cash and Robert Dear shooting up a Planned Parenthood because—as he explained last week, “The atrocities. That’s what they want to seal. The babies” and “I am a warrior for the babies”—the answer is no.* Moreover, the answer is always the same, as she explained to Chris Cuomo, who tried to find out whether she saw any connection between her own inflammatory claims about Planned Parenthood and Dear’s shooting: “This is a typical left-wing tactic, of trying to shut down the truth by silencing people. This has happened over and over and over again.”

OK, let’s say criticism of the incendiary (and provably false) statements we make ourselves is not only off limits but also a silencing tactic. But Fiorina, who cannot connect her own words to the actions of anyone, will say that President Obama incites hate and violence too.

Of course nobody is seriously talking about criminalizing this speech or punishing it, so let’s not have that conversation here.

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We all know that the First Amendment protects all sorts of stupid speech and hateful speech and racist speech and speech that creeps right up to the line where incitement happens and gives it a wedgie. This is what we believe. So this needn’t be a legal question. It doesn’t mean words have no consequences; it merely means we prefer to punish the consequences over the words.

But for the party that eschews causation (guns don’t kill people; words don’t kill people) there remains a question: It’s not necessarily that vitriolic speech targeting certain ethnicities leads others to behave violently (although there is certainly some reason to believe it can and sometimes does). The issue is whether that rhetoric causes certain races, ethnicities, or nationalities to be terrified to walk down our streets at night. And whether anyone plans to take responsibility for that Tuesday night.

Because it’s impossible to link causes and effects, therefore, the one question I would love to ask each of the candidates Tuesday night is whether other candidates’ words have consequences. When confronted with her accusations about Planned Parenthood, Carly Fiorina likes to say that her words have no more connection to violent actions than Obama’s words, which presumably do. So maybe she should be asked whether Trump’s comments about creating databases for American Muslims or denying them entry into the country are fomenting anti-Islamic feelings and acts. Similarly I would love to ask Trump whether Fiorina’s words about Planned Parenthood might be leading to the rise of incidents at clinics. I would ask all the candidates if they think it matters when imams preach hate and whether it has consequences when Black Lives Matter protesters talk about white cops. And given how obsessively these candidates like to blame the media, I would also ask them whether words matter when journalists attack each of them.

We all love to believe that when we are speaking truth to power it’s glorious and important and has no consequences for anyone except freedom. But if you are standing on a stage Tuesday night suggesting that everyone else’s speech has dangerous implications and inflames hate and yours does not, well, that really would be interesting.

Correction, Dec. 15, 2015: Due to an editing error, this post origically misidentified Robert Dear as Richard Dear. (Return.)