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Murder music and the limits of free speech

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William Crawley | 14:59 UK time, Tuesday, 27 November 2007

111604jamaica200.jpgMany of the newspapers are today leading with the Oxford Union free speech debate. We examined the issues involved on Sunday morning with the president of the Oxford Union and the co-chair of Oxford's Jewish Society. It is absolutely right that the story should receive so much coverage, because the moral questions raised are extremely important.

Into the mix of questions about what limits we should place on public speech, let's add this: “Hang chi chi gal wid a long piece of rope”. That's part of a lyric from the song "Hang ‘em High" by the Jamaican Reggae artist Beenie Man, which was until recently available in many highstreet music shops. Roughly translated, this reads: "Hang lesbians with a long piece of rope.”

Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall, has been raising this issue with Westminster politicians. Amnesty International reports that gay men and women in Jamaica have been "beaten, cut, burned, raped and shot on account of their sexuality", so this debate is not merely about lyricism. The connection between hate-speech and violent action has prompted some Reggae artists (including Beenie Man) to repudiate some of their own songs and campaign against homophobia, but other performers in the Reggae community continue to perform songs laced with anti-gay sentiments (along with attacks based on a other people's religion, ethnicity and gender).

Until that degree of self-censorship is universal, we are entitled to ask why songs celebrating the murder of lesbians or gay men should even be available in shops.

Pictured: This man was beaten with sticks and cut with machetes by assailants who perceived that he was gay.

Comments

There is no justifiable limit to free speech.

Unless the speech of the majority can be allowed to silence the speech of the minority, that is. And that's the issue: while we may not like everything that everybody has to say, the idea that we can shut people up by force for saying things we don't like means that there's a "we" in the equation to begin with, a collective will based on a universal morality of some derivation that can, through majority rule, silence voices which don't agree.

There will always be unpalatable voices in society, but to silence them by force is a horrendous breach of the very principle which permits progress on these issues in the first place: the ability to speak freely.

In short, rights don't exist at the collective level; they exist at the individual level or not at all. And, by the way, these rights are taken into government: they're not what government gives us to take out. They're what the founders of the United States called "inalienable", which means the matter under discussion should not be about whether or not to allow the sale of anti-gay material but instead about how to protect the rights of gays to be gay and the rights of homophobes to be homophobic. There are people who don't like one or the other, or both. That's irrelevant to any discussion about policy: policy exists to protect both free speech and free sexuality.

  • 2.
  • At 06:03 PM on 27 Nov 2007,
  • Hermione wrote:

I couldnt disagree more with someone than with John's comment there. If the idea of rights makes sense at a personal level, there's no reason why it shouldn't make sense at the group/collective level.

Also: incitement to violence is the kind of speech the law bans and it is right to place that restriction on freedom. When we create a body of law, we try to reflect the community's moral ambitions for itself. I want a community where violence is minimalised.

Hermione says: "I want a community where violence is minimalised."

No, you want a community which infringes on freedom of speech. The reason you give - incitement to violence - is an arbitrary one. How many other things do you want to claim incites violence and should also be shut down? Where would you stop? Fred Phelps should have been shut down years ago, right?

Let's get this right: the blame for physical attacks on gay people lies squarely at the feet of those carrying out the attacks, nobody else, and certainly not at the feet of a musician who wrote some offensive songs.

  • 4.
  • At 07:06 PM on 27 Nov 2007,
  • Eagle1 wrote:

John, theres a difference between fred phelps (who is just an ugly homophobe) and someone who someone inciting violence. One is entitled to free speech even though he's appallingly offensive. The other is not entitled to free speech because it crosses the line into promotion of violence.

I passionately believe in freedom of speech except where it is freedom of speech to incite violence. Incitement to violence is extremely and obviously dangerous and should be illegal. Otherwise, the words are best tackled by rational arguments rather than bans.

Yes, but we have to be very very careful where we draw that line. Drawing it to ban song lyrics is, to my mind, asinine. There's a difference between a guy circulating propaganda which seriously, demonstrably intends to incite violence against a particular portion of the population and a guy who writes a stupid song. Standing as an activist on a street corner preaching death to those who oppose Islam = inciting violence. Sitting in a recording studio as an artist singing sometimes cryptic song lyrics wherein all the artist's prejudice can be found simply doesn't qualify. And, if you wish to claim that it does, then you must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the person committing the act did so as a result of hearing the song's lyrics.

You can't ban the speech of people you find unpalatable, just because you find them unpalatable. "If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all." - Noam Chomsky

The answer: get out and prosecute the people who deserve it and send a clear message that violence in general won't be tolerated ...... revolutionary, isn't it.

  • 7.
  • At 09:04 PM on 27 Nov 2007,
  • Ladzlo wrote:

This guy John Wright is seriously missing the point. He's changing his mind all over the place. John, I don't know you, but this post is not about banning unpalatable speech, it's about banning speech that incites violence. These song lyrics actually celebrate killing and CALL for people to do the killing. You seem to be missing that point. Then people GET killed. It's happening, man.

Ladzlo- I don't know where you think I changed my mind, and I don't know you either (with a pseudonym like 'Ladzlo', who could?), but I'm sure you're capable of seeing that in order for a piece of music to be justifiably blamed for an act of violence it should be proven that the piece of music was responsible for the act of violence. If such a case can really be made, then let's have the artist taken to court and prosecuted for inciting violence. If, as I suspect, it can't, then the issue is purely about freedom of speech.

In any case, nowhere in Will's original post did the term "incitement" appear. The parting thought on the OP was "...we are entitled to ask why songs celebrating the murder of lesbians or gay men should even be available shops."

Tell me, Ladzlo, what other kinds of speech aside from inciting violence and celebrating it (as it could be argued many films do - how many of those also?) would you like to ban? And how would you like to do it? In the courts as I suggested above? Or would you like to just ban certain kinds of artistry outright? Or perhaps ban only their sale, as William suggests by implication?

If we're really going to talk about this, let's find out exactly what you're proposing. Over to you.

  • 9.
  • At 01:43 AM on 28 Nov 2007,
  • David (Oxford) wrote:

Ladzlo has a point John. Your first comment said, "The are NO justifiable limits on free speech". Your second comment appears to accept that we should "draw the line" somewhere, then you appear to accept that we should draw the line in the case of a person who explicitly calls for another person's murder. Your position does seem to have changed.

David- You have a point. But I drew the line beyond the sphere of this discussion; what we're talking about is the use of hate-lyrics in music, not the direct incitement to violence. And remember, incitement to hatred is not the same thing as incitement to violence: we've heard about this in post-9/11 history on how to deal with people like Abu "Hook" Hamza in London, etc. What I'm saying is that the content of art cannot be construed as an incitement to violence, and someone claims it can, then the victim of a hate crime should press charges against the artist. It seems to me that this is entirely different to what's being inferred in the original post here: banning the sale of certain kinds of music.

I think a contributor on another blog had it right when he asked: "So the argument is that it incites violence. What, so we’re a society of lemmings without brains? Blank slates, upon which any[one] can write “KILL” and we’ll do it like robotic numbskulls?

"What a low opinion these people have of their fellow man. How hard is it to “incite violence”? People who commit violent acts aren’t “incited” to do them, they are free agents and are responsible for their own actions. You have it right John to say this is “the perfect means by which those who are truly responsible for physical attacks against gay people can be let off the hook: blame the music they heard rather than themselves”… it’s the classic “the drink made me do it”, or the video game or the music or the movies.

"Get over it. There are violent people who hate others and there are people who just hate others. Last I heard it wasn’t illegal to say you’d LIKE to kill somebody, it was just illegal to do it. How crazy is our society becoming????"

I'll try to post this again.... sorry if it appears twice.

------------------

David- You have a point. But I drew the line beyond the sphere of this discussion; what we're talking about is the use of hate-lyrics in music, not the direct incitement to violence. And remember, incitement to hatred is not the same thing as incitement to violence: we've heard about this in post-9/11 history on how to deal with people like Abu "Hook" Hamza in London, etc. What I'm saying is that the content of art cannot be construed as an incitement to violence, and the only context in which it can is if the victim of a hate crime wishes to press charges against the artist on those grounds. It seems to me that this is entirely different to what's being inferred in the original post here: banning the sale of certain kinds of music.

I think a contributor on another blog had it right when he pondered: "So the argument is that it incites violence. What, so we’re a society of lemmings without brains? Blank slates, upon which any[one] can write “KILL” and we’ll do it like robotic numbskulls?

"What a low opinion these people have of their fellow man. ... People who commit violent acts aren’t “incited” to do them, they are free agents and are responsible for their own actions. You have it right John to say this is “the perfect means by which those who are truly responsible for physical attacks against gay people can be let off the hook: blame the music they heard rather than themselves”… it’s the classic “the drink made me do it”, or the video game or the music or the movies.

"Get over it. There are violent people who hate others and there are people who just hate others. Last I heard it wasn’t illegal to say you’d LIKE to kill somebody, it was just illegal to do it. How crazy is our society becoming????"

  • 12.
  • At 02:57 AM on 29 Nov 2007,
  • David (Oxford) wrote:

John, Not so fast. The original post and conversation was NOT merely about hate-lyrics. It was about incitement to violence of the worst kind, namely, murder. Even the title of the post gives this away. The lyric, "Hang lesbians with a long piece of rope" is an incitement to violence, not just hatred.

Your next point revearses the argument again, because you go on to say that the content of art CANNOT constitute an incitement to violence. The courts disagree and have done so since the Nazi propagandists. Some raggae artists HAVE faced trial for their lyrics.

Lyrics are a form of communication. If ANY sentence in our language can be tantamount to an incitement to violence, I don't see why lyrics in a popular song should be any less culpable than, say, a sentence in a speech.

For clarity, John, I think Will's post asks exactly the right question about "murder music" (note, not merely "hate music"). I agree with him entirely that shops should not be allowed to stock a CD with songs that incite violence. You seem unclear about whether you agree with him on that point.

David- Thanks for the discussion. I'll agree that I overstated the point at the beginning. And I'm aware that laws have been made which disagree with my position.

You say that lyrics are a form of communication, and that lyrics in a song should be treated the same way in this regard as a sentence in a speech. To me that's a little dogmatic; tantamount to saying that what the bible says in Genesis should be treated the same way as what it says in Acts. The purpose of a lyric is different than the purpose of a speech. It's been alleged that Ian Paisley's speeches have incited violence in the past. (I'd be interested to know if you support that assessment.) Whether or not that's right, I think clear that if a speaker gives a speech in which he says that we should "Hang lesbians with a long piece of rope", it should be treated entirely differently than the lyric of a song, which often cannot be read literally, in the way that readers here appear to want to read it.

I agree that, if it's read literally, that particular sentiment is a clear incitement to violence. I don't think ANY piece of music can be heard that way. Did Tina Turner really want to roll on a river? For that matter, did she really leave a good job in the city, working for the Man every night and day? Clean plates in Memphis? Pump tane in New Orleans? It's art. It may not be very nice art, but I'm simply not convinced that the dynamic of this thing operates thus:

1) Recording artist creates song
2) Vulnerable youth hears lyric "Hang chi chi gal wid a long piece of rope"
3) Vulnerable youth finds his violent feelings toward gay people substantiated
4) Vulnerable youth gets together with friends and finds a gay guy to beat.

I find most of these lyrics impossible to understand in any case. (Perhaps if you're sure that Beenie Man hates gay people you could explain this lyric: "I want a dude who will do me in the van...") Maybe thinking people like you and I just shouldn't try to listen to and interpret rap music! It's its own art form, and not exactly supposed to be analysed. (It's supposed to be blared from the boom boxes of annoying teenagers.)

On your question of whether I agree with Will that it should be illegal for record stores to stock this Beenie Man CD, no - I disagree. If someone issues a spoken word album in which there's a clear incitement to violence... something along the lines of "We hate X. I think the time has come to send X a message. Pick up your arms...." etc., then I'd be happy to call it incitement and we can talk about how to deal with that appropriately in law. But banning this or that strikes me as entirely the wrong way to go about such things.

  • 14.
  • At 01:54 AM on 30 Nov 2007,
  • Paul (Cambridge) wrote:

Part of me is unconvinced, David, in the wisdom of saying "You cannot express this" (which is conceptually equivilent to "You cannot publish this CD"). What is the point in just limiting one's expression of an idea? If the only thing wrong with it is that people find it offensive then it is silly to restrict its expression on account of its unpopularity (the Muhammad teddy bear being the obvious example), whereas even if the idea is itself something harmful, hushing it up and not allowing people to talk about it isn't going to actually serve any constructive purpose in discrediting it.

Although I regret that the mindset of the CD's artist was such that he was led to create it, I'm glad that given that mindset, he did create it. People driven to extremes by personal tragedy or mishandled upbringing need to make it known that they are suffering, even if this expression of suffering realises itself as an intolerant rant against the oppressive "other", and we need to act on these expressions to determine and solve their root cause. Otherwise we'll only find out they have the problems they do when they end up involved in gang shootings, drug dealings, terrorism or whatever other foul horrors this world can make a tortured soul commit.

An article agreeing with my position appears in today's Guardian by Brendan O'Neill, where he stops just shy of saying that those who don't trust black people to listen to music containing hate lyrics without murdering someone afterward borders on racism:

"The argument that Jamaican dancehall may provoke violence or public disorder is specious. It rests on the assumption that dancehall fans are a mob of ignorant bigots who could be stirred to commit acts of homophobic violence by listening to Buju Banton or some other moron singing about "batty boys"."

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