With all the talk of violent rhetoric inspiring real bloodshed, the recent manslaughter conviction of Michelle Carter in Massachusetts just adds fuel to the controversy. Granted, the case of Carter, now twenty, who urged her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, to take his own life, is not the same as violent political speech, but the question remains: can words kill? Most conservatives don’t think so, including Rush Limbaugh in a recent rant. But one can also make the case that words do kill, and those whose language is hateful and lethal should be held accountable.
Limbaugh adamantly opposed the verdict and hoped that it would be overturned. This sets a dangerous precedent, he said, given that Carter was miles away, urging Roy on via texts. The young man was responsible for his own death. Her behavior was reprehensible, according to Limbaugh, but he went on to lampoon the idea that according to liberals, Roy was a victim.
Limbaugh has always been a vocal proponent of the idea that individuals should be held accountable for their actions, and not blame them on the words or persuasion of others. That is, indeed, a hallmark of conservative thought. On the other hand, a hallmark of civilized thought, accepted by everyone but the occasional grenade-thrower, is that you can’t yell ‘Fire’ in a crowded theater. In other words, say pretty much what you want, but not if your words cause immediate, foreseeable harm. Some will argue that the ‘crowded theater’ analogy doesn’t work well here since Carter was not urging a mob to mass violence. True, but to the extent that the analogy does work, Carter was not just yelling ‘Fire,’ she was urging the arsonist to light the match.
The Carter case inhabits a deeply painful and personal realm outside the political arena that dominates the daily discourse. Conrad Roy knew Carter intimately, and his state of mind, like that of any suicide victim, matters just as much as hers. Those who contemplate or commit suicide do not think rationally, and the approval of others may be their only lifeline – and, conversely, the disapproval of others can mean a death sentence.
Some conservative thinkers argue that one would have to prosecute onlookers who urge those teetering on ledges or bridges to jump. That’s not quite the same, given that onlookers are strangers, as opposed to intimate friends and relations with whom the potential suicide victim has invested love and trust. So, does the law have no responsibility to protect potential victims, due to the ramifications of prosecuting people for mere words?
This case is difficult because it inhabits numerous troubling and complicated worlds. In a nutshell, does a free society just let Michelle Carter walk free, with no consequence? Even some libertarians do not understand that a free society is more complicated than it sounds.
While individuals are allowed to waste their lives away if that is their choice, we still place limits on behavior that is incontrovertibly destructive. This is why suicide is outlawed. In other words, (and this is another axiom of conservative thought), absolute freedom does not allow one to not be free, even if by choice.
Michelle Carter was convicted because she urged Conrad Roy to commit what most free societies still consider a crime. Recall that conservatives loathed Dr. Jack Kevorkian, not just for his practical assistance of patient suicide, but for being its national spokesman.
A manslaughter conviction, with a possible sentence of twenty years, may be harsh. Still, she contributed to this young man’s death. Ask victims of abuse, and many will tell you that words can hurt far more than physical blows. The pain of words, unlike a slap in the face, remains in the memory and helps form our self-perceptions and images of the world. Words, indeed, can penetrate like bullets.
Carter’s conviction remains controversial, yet I remain open to opposing viewpoints. It’s just hard to take seriously those who shrug off the power of words, given that they reap enormous fortunes every day from their own wind power.