Perhaps the most worrying trend among proponents of political correctness is equating words with violence. This philosophy, built on works like Words That Wound, has captured many young minds in a web of moral distortion. For example, in response to a speech at Oberlin University last year by Christina Hoff Sommers, a group of students urged others ‘to pull together in the face of this violence [her talk]’.
Two weeks ago, a graduate student at my university, Duke, exemplified this moral confusion in the student newspaper, The Chronicle:
‘Key to [our broad interpretation of free speech] is a firm separation between speech and action… but…[w]ords hurt as much as actions; indeed, words are actions. Within the context of white supremacy, any distinction between a defaced poster, a racist pamphlet and legal or extralegal murder can be only of degree.’
The underlying assumption — that words can be violent — is illogical, deleterious in its consequences, and illiberal in its philosophy.
First, the distinction between words and actions — between hurt feelings and broken bones — is not some arbitrary construct the Westboro Baptist Church created so that it can continue happily yelling homophobic slurs at dead soldiers’ funerals. Rather, that distinction is vital for a free society. Hurt feelings can only be attested to; the only adjudicator of hate speech is the target, because only he knows how those words impacted on him. Not so for actions. No one can deny that a broken bone is broken. The conflation of words and actions makes the target’s subjective morality into a universal standard of justice: each would judge his own case.