Incitement to violence, our emotions and the First Amendment

I love lawyers because they engage and inform my rationality; they settle me down. Without them and the law they represent, I’d be left entirely to my idealism, i.e., my emotions.

I love my emotions but need the antidote to their extreme levels, which offer some sort of moral release but no actual solution to the problem exciting them.

The first time I understood all that was when I worked for lawyers. When bad things happened to good people, when civil rights were abused, as the only non-lawyer around I became the office id, would get furious, would ask, “Can this happen? What can be done about it?”

When you’re living in pure id, the only action you can take is physical. My weapons of choice were and are tears, yelling, stomping around, dark mutters about killing, strangulation fantasies, all interspersed with the word “fucking.” (Forget guns; they’re the choice of men whose eyes lift from their phalluses only for riots. When I imagine killing someone, I think of my hands around his neck.)

After my outrage, I’d talk to one of the guys I worked for and would learn what could be done through law and what couldn’t. Learning what was practicable, while not entirely satisfying, calmed me down.

Suzanne Nossel’s New York Times opinion piece, “Don’t Let Trump’s Second Trial Change the First Amendment,” had the same effect on me. (The subtitle: “The House was right to impeach the president, but the legal definition of incitement shouldn’t give way in the process.”)

Relinquishing emotional reaction to awfulness is not easy. We’ve all gone through times in which we’ve been furious at the way we’ve been treated by someone, have dealt with the situation effectively (even brilliantly)…but have stomped around spitting out anger for a while afterward. Even after a good friend points out, “You won. You don’t have to be angry anymore.”

In law, things often come down to the (legal) meaning of a word. In this case, “incitement” is the Word. “Incitement” hits the emotional system, not the brain. Indeed, that’s the point of it, isn’t it? You don’t incite someone to rational behavior; you incite mobs to be violent. And at the same time, “incitement” rouses the anger of those of us who are not inspired to mob violence.

So here’s a semi-serious warning: reading Ms. Nossel’s excellent essay may serve to reduce your justifiable rage and you may not like that. However, please remember it is now time for the deliberate process of our laws to supersede our instantaneous emotions.

It’s OK and it will be OK. We won. Remember: we won.

We won.



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