The danger of equating speech with violence

Alex Kasnetz

Topics Free Speech

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.

Second, if words equal violence, one may justly respond to those words with actual violence. Maryam Namazie, an apostate from Islam and campaigner for secularism and women’s rights, recently spoke at Goldsmiths University in London. Her harsh critiques of Islamism threatened the ‘safety’ of some offended Muslim students. So they responded by physically intimidating her and sabotaging her presentation. As Brendan O’Neill noted: ‘We have the Kafkaesque situation where a bunch of blokes can physically intimidate a woman in the name of saving students from feelings of intellectual intimidation.’

Finally, and fundamentally, how can we, as rational agents in liberal democracies, work through disagreements in search of commonality and truth when harsh criticism is tantamount to murder? This ideology is not merely unworkable in a liberal society; it is antithetical to it. As the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik put it in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks:

‘It is not merely that an assault on an ideology is different from a threat made to a person; it is that it is the opposite of a threat made to a person. The whole end of liberal civilisation is to substitute the criticism of ideas for assaults on people.’

Cartoonists drawing pictures; jihadists gunning them down with Kalashnikovs. Criticising Black Lives Matter; killing a black boy in the street. The difference is not merely one of degree.

Alex Kasnetz is a law student at Duke University.

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Topics Free Speech


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