February 24, 2017

That's Not a Threat

I-80 Eastshore Fwy

This has been a pet peeve of mine for several years, and I suppose it is kind of a strange one as far as pet peeves go. I don't expect anyone will agree with me on this, but here goes. The following statement is not a threat:
You should be dragged in the street and shot.
I understand that this is not a very nice thing to say to someone. I can see how this statement may be perceived as threatening in some sense by the person on the receiving end of it. Undoubtedly, hearing that someone else thinks you should be shot is unpleasant. And yet, this statement is not a threat.

In order for a verbal statement to constitute a threat, we need a clear expression of intent to inflict harm. We don't have that in the statement above. Not even close. Here's what a threat would look like:
I am going to drag you in the street and shoot you.
Here we have a clear expression of intent. I think the difference is fairly obvious and important. In the case of the first statement, my response would likely be something along the lines of, "Yeah, whatever." In the case of the second statement, my response may well include contacting law enforcement.

I can't count the number of times I have seen people complaining about receiving "death threats" as some sort of badge of honor, only to provide evidence of the first sort of statement or something even weaker. These are not death threats. The second statement here is a death threat. "I am going to kill you" is a death threat; "someone should kill you" is not a death threat.

Why is this a pet peeve? Besides my strange conviction that words and their definitions matter, I think it bugs me because we've all heard some variation of "People who do x should be shot" over and over again. Hell, I've seen this on Twitter where x was manspreading! And when we see it, I'd bet that none of us thought of it as a threat (as long as we ourselves do not do x). "People who drive with their turn signal on and no intention of turning should be shot." We recognize that this is not a threat. But for some reason, this goes out the window when we are the ones who do x. "People who criticize Jesus should be shot." That is an objectionable statement, but it isn't a threat simply because it applies to us.