I learned something interesting a few days. There’s an old phrase that anyone who ever watched Bugs Bunny cartoons has probably heard: “Them’s fightin’ words.” It was one of the irascible Yosemite Sam’s lines, if I recall correctly.
Over the years, the phrase has been attributed to and used by many a rapscallion, roughneck, and tough guy, usually as an excuse to kick someone’s ass and over time it’s become more and more of a joke.
“I don’t like the beer in this joint.”
“Stranger, them’s fightin’ words.”
Yes, there are people who will get into a fight over beer. There are also people who will get into a fight over almost anything and using the adage “Them’s fightin’ words” gives them a flimsy moral excuse. After all, I just warned you of a fight and gave you a chance to back down gracefully after you told me canned salsa was better than homemade or Alien’s Imperial Stout was better than Marble‘s Imperial Stout. (They’re actually both pretty good.)
What I learned today was “Them’s fightin’ words” is actually a thing from a quasi-legal perspective.
Let’s back up for a moment, though. I can’t speak to the laws of other countries, but in the United States we hold Freedom of Speech as sacrosanct, even if most people don’t completely understand that the 1st Amendment to the Constitution only refers to freedom of speech in terms of what laws Congress can make. In other words, if you get kicked out of a Target for screeching Bible verses at other patrons, it’s not a 1st Amendment issue since Target is a private entity and not Congress. Target has every right to kick you out of the store if you’re being an offensive jackass.
That said, there are still laws on the books that are designed to protect freedom of speech and we in the States tend to take it pretty seriously. There are certainly people out there looking to block people from saying things they don’t like (Evangelicals and hippies come to mind), but most of us hear something we don’t like and, if it’s harmless, just roll our eyes and move on.
As a for instance, this truck is protected speech. Also, ladies, I’m pretty sure this guy is available.
The kicker here is the idea of harmless. A big black truck promising to give you the D later is tacky, but pretty harmless in the global scheme of things. It’s the kind of thing that might make you roll your eyes, but won’t cause any long term damage. It may be offensive, but being offended never killed anyone.
Now, to get to the point and explain the headline. Earlier today a group of people tracked down a guy wearing a swastika armband. Words were exchanged and the Nazi wound up getting knocked out with a single punch. Had the guy just been strutting around with a Nazi armband and leaving everyone alone, I’d be less inclined to agree with decking him, but apparently he’d also been tossing racist epithets, harassing, and threatening people, too.
And that is where “Them’s fightin’ words” comes into play. Wearing a swastika armband is offensive, but ultimately harmless. As soon as threats come into play – immediate ones, not “in the future, maybe” kinds of vague speech – that’s a whole new ballgame and now you’ve gone well beyond protected speech.
And that, friends, means when you get knocked out, you pretty much brought it on yourself.
If you’re wandering around town in a Nazi armband, you’re offending the millions that died at their hands or died trying to wipe Nazi filth off the planet, but you’re not technically breaking any laws. Don’t expect people to love you for it, but you should be safe. If, however, you’re wearing a swastika armband and causing an immediate threat, don’t be surprised when someone busts your ass.
If you’re into Nazis getting knocked out, check out the YouTube video.
Further reading on Fighting Words