One way of knowing that a subject is polarizing is a dearth of informal public conversation about it. ”Transactional palaver,” to use T.R. Pearson’s phrase, often provides a glimpse into a nation’s psyche. Some topics are safe; others are not. Included among the “not safe” topics these days are Julian Assange and his organization, WikiLeaks. Professing admiration, respect, and support for Assange and his organization can be tricky business. Best not to mention him and what they do; otherwise, your neighbors might think you an anarchist or “unpatriotic.” In a pervasive climate like this, then, several things can happen: the story of WikiLeaks and its founder will fade from the front pages (we’re seeing that happening now), the story will percolate for a while among the politically active but retain its radioactivity (we’re seeing that now, too), or the story will drift into the extremity of political discourse and become fodder for those on both sides who are viscerally motivated to exploit and then co-opt Assange and WikiLeaks for their own political purposes. The left seems to possess a bit more sangfrois than the right when it comes to Assange and his group, and nothing illustrates this more clearly than the profusion of variants on “kill Julian Assange” (.com) currently multiplying on the web.
To riff on the old “Saturday Night Live” skit about convicted murderer Gary Gilmore that got so much criticism back in the 70s, let’s kill Julian Assange for Christmas seems to be a serious rallying cry for some. Killassange.com was registered on December 21, 2010. Killjulianassange.com was registered on November 30, 2010. Julianassangemustdie.com was registered by a fairly prominent right-wing blogger named Melissa Clouthier on December 6, 2010. Julianassangedeathpool.com on December 6, 2010. Then, of course, there are variations on this idea with published feelers like “Anyone up for a dead pool on Julian Assange?” posted on December 31, 2010. Lastly, enter the satirists from Landover Baptist Church with a recent poll “How would Jesus kill Julian Assange?”
Rational people can disagree on whether or not the escalating violent rhetoric of right-wing politics contributed to the recent shooting of Congresswoman Gabriella Giffords and the collateral murder of six others, but rational people–I think–might agree that exhortations for the murder of anyone are not moral. The right to free speech comes with both legal and moral responsibilities, and when we hear speech that tramples the core values we commonly hold, it is our moral imperative to speak up. When people use speech I find offensive, I speak up. Nigger. Kike. Fag. Cooze. Gook. People have the right to use these words if they choose, but we as a society have made it clear that only in exceptional contexts (like the study of literature, for example, or the teaching of it, in my case) are these words tolerated. By rejecting speech of this sort, we articulate our respect for all people, we reinforce our desire to maintain a society that values difference, and we validate the responsibility each of us shares when exercising our right to speak. In common conversation, we’d be horrified to hear someone talking like this. Similarly, we’d be horrified to hear someone call for the murder of anyone publicly. The overt and unavoidable nature of audible speech names things many of us feel but would rather not own. We possess a moral compass–most of us, anyway– that views the slaughter of humans as immoral, as something we don’t personally want to be responsible for. In some cases, indeed, such speech is a crime, as in calling for the assassination of the President of the United States. Those who silently tolerate speech of the sort mentioned above are as derelict in their social and moral responsibilities as those who make such statements.
All of which brings me back to killing Julian Assange. The domain name administrators for these websites claim they have no right to control the speech of those who register such names and that they will register anything except cases calling for the murder of the President. Their stance is arbitrary and hypocritical. We have standards for speech in many aspects of our lives. For example, I can’t get a license plate for my car that says “Fuck You,” or “Die Kikes,” or “Kill Niggers.” The state. ironically enough, controls my speech in that respect. I can’t get an editorial printed that uses this sort of language or calls for violence against individuals or groups of people. The editorial standards of the newspaper control my speech in that respect. And few people would argue that those controls are unwarranted because they validate what we claim to hold dear: respect for people and life. Why, then, are website domain names exempt from such standards? Indeed, a case could be made that domain names of this sort are even more worthy of standards-based control than newspapers or license plates. No one can communicate with another person on or through my license plate or my editorial. Such speech is one-sided by its nature. Hateful people united in common cause cannot use my license plate or my editorial to coordinate or plan or foment. The same cannot be said for the websites on the internet, which, by their nature, have a community-forming function that unites people of common interests and provides them an organizing tool for action.
Thoughtful people should demand that domain name administrators take responsibility for their speech. For example, they should support newly launched websites like www.vivantleakers.org, which will provide a single-source catalog of calls for violence against leakers on the web so that pressure can be placed upon domain name administrators to apply commonly accepted standards of speech in the public forum. Remaining silent or impartial is unacceptable in this day and age given recent events; people must make their objections known consistently and clearly. Anything short of that is cowardly, immoral, and indecent.