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GUEST COLUMN: Speakers not responsible for listeners' actions

GUEST COLUMN: Speakers not responsible for listeners' actions

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During his Jan. 10 appearance on the Fox News Channel’s “Sunday Morning Futures,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio commented on the Capitol Hill rioting.

“The president does bear some responsibility here,” Rubio said. “... Because these are the people that can do terrible things. And they may be incited to do things by words that, maybe you didn’t intend for them to be read that way, but they did. And that’s all that matters. It doesn’t matter what you meant, it matters what they thought you meant.”

Rubio could not have been more wrong. Let’s widen the consideration.

Headlines often tell of political commentators and celebrities who’d uttered “controversial” remarks and mobs that rose.

What defines a statement’s true quality? A speaker’s sincere intent, or a listener’s equally sincere but contrary interpretation? To whom does a piece of communication belong, its author, or the audience?

One answer is any statement’s true quality lies with its originator. The audience is secondary. Theirs is a receptive function, not a message-value determinative one.

But both speaker and objector can have a hold on validity. A statement innocently uttered by one can genuinely provoke ire in a listener. The meaning and/or import of a given remark may differ from one mind to another.

Perhaps the statement reflects some philosophical value that speaker and listener do not share. The debate then becomes one of value superiority.

Ideological disharmony is healthy and is at the heart of Great Conversations from which truths and understandings can emerge. In that spirit, reasonable publication of disputatious or unpopular ideas should never bring ruination.

“Heckler’s veto” is the courtroom term for speakers stifling themselves in anticipation of adverse audience reactions, not for reasons of their own. But choices speakers make for authorial causes are in sensible service of their message.

Such decisions advance speakers’ legitimate missions, whereas a heckler’s veto might frustrate pursuit. Anyone familiar with a speaker and not sympathetic to them is free to turn the channel, not purchase the book, or skip the event.

Back to President Trump.

Speakers (like him) alone should exercise editorial control. They have the responsibility of shaping their words with due judiciousness, true, but communications faithful to intended ideas must never be compromised.

To assign culpability to Trump for the Capitol riot, is to argue against open expression and exempt lawbreakers from proper account.

Waterloo resident DC Larson is an author, blogger, and freelance essayist.

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