Let’s rehash! When is speech violence?

A new column at the New York Times attempted to use our knowledge about distress and human psychology to conclude that “speech that bullies or torments … is literally a form of violence.”

The response online has been swift and largely just a rehash of a debate, which is feverishly boring by now, on the connection between speech and action. We’ve been having this discussion at least since student activists began protesting non-left speakers on campuses, which frequently turned violent — batterizing professors, throwing smoke bombs, shoving around attendees. That was actual violence.

All the cards are on the table at this point, collecting dust: there are the civil libertarians looking to preserve the conditions for debate in a free society, and the left-wing response which sees some issues as non-debatable and wants to protect vulnerable groups at whatever cost. The speech restrictionists receive some philosophical backbone from people like Herbert Marcuse while speech defenders are supported by the Constitutional legal system. Just last month, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of free speech twice without dissent (on the topics of trademarks and social media). Justice Alito wrote, simply, “Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.”

Rigor mortis was just about settling into this long-dead debate until Lisa Barrett published this article, “When is speech violent?”, in which she presents an argument as fresh which is actually well known by its opponents. That said, the column is well-written, if not logically sound; she recognizes the fundamental difference between Yiannopolous and Murray; she offers some benefit of the doubt to Republicans in their distrust of the new university, although presumably that is not her political camp; her example from class demonstrates a recognition of the overall importance of pushing bad ideas into the spotlight. These notes distinguish Barrett’s article from the usual ideo-fanatical imbroglio that unceasingly propagates from the left to justify chilling speech. The argument itself, in a general form, is old and already receiving ample criticism. I want to comment on just one line. 

She abbreviates the crux of her argument as thus:

If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech — at least certain types of speech — can be a form of violence. But which types?

That is one huge “but,” and a painful stretch of transitivity. 

Obviously this argument allows for anything that causes prolonged stress to be a form of violence. Thusly, I can report my professors for every finals week I’ve ever had. The implicit assumption is that things which cause physical harm are always forms of violence (more specifically: if x can cause physical harm then x is a form of violence when it does so). This is how that little leap of logic is made toward the end. What is even more interesting, however, is that this thing might not be a form of violence when it doesn’t cause physical harm, according to the logic — and of course Barrett must believe that, lest she commit all speech to be a form of battery.

This position is interesting to me because, like many other advocacies being discussed today, it seems to violate our basic usage of terms.

Is there an example of any other action (taken here to include anything done by a human) — given our vocabulary for “violence” — that the doing of itself need not be necessarily violent but which can still be dubbed “violent” based on the physical harm it causes? A subsequently rather than simultaneously judged violence? … I don’t think so. I think our standard usage of the word “violence” hitherto this Times article includes and only includes those actions whereby their occurrence itself necessarily means physical harm has also been done. (The relationship being one-sided.) Put simply, our usage of violence is such that if the action happened then harm was committed. Punching someone in the face is not violent only when it “causes physical harm.” It is a form of violence because it always causes physical harm. 

So, it seems to be a misuse of words to call speech violent. Torture, murder, rape: these things and others are violent because they are always so, not because they “can” be so. This fact is absolutely necessary for deliberation in the courtroom. However, speech can be abusive (likewise, spanking may or may not be abusive), and retribution for prolonged verbal harassment is already part of criminal law… so again, why even the need to keep talking about this?

I think everything else that could be said on the issue has been said on hundreds of blogs with dozens of different political attitudes, many times over. In my political and social philosophy class last year, a jurisprudence professor from Rutgers did a guest lecture on why America should adopt laws criminalizing hate speech. The main point, which she openly disclosed as an appeal to popularity, was that plenty of Western European countries had done likewise and the United States was beginning to look a little stubborn. She then accused her vocal opponents, myself included, of slippery slope fallacies when we complained about more government involvement in what people can and can not say.

Are there better defenders of speech restrictionism than this visiting professor? Yes, but by God there are not many. And the fact that most of them tend to be left-of-center, and especially far left, undermines the ostensible purity of the position. In the same way that right wing rhetoric has helped spark violence in people already predisposed to behave that way, and, further still, radicalized them from pacifistic tabula rasas, left wing rhetoric has too. Should we be eliminating Marxist thought from our universities, since orthodox theory predicts and lauds a violent uprising of the proletariat? In my sociology class last semester, our professor announced on the first day that we would be (exclusively) using a “Marxist framework to answer these questions.” Who can doubt that reading the socialist and left-anarchist canon, from Lenin to Guevara to Emma Goldman, has led to violence, when the text and much of the philosophical framework views physical harm as absolutely necessary to the supreme cause? The “revolutionary terror” perspective laughs at democratic reformation. 

This is not to say violence is never justified. I am no Nicholas II loyalist. But the decision about when it is justified is not up to a handful of left-leaning professors and journalists. So if speech is to be censored on the basis that it can lead to violence, the government will have to wipe out a lot of university cirricula — all of it has the potential for radicalization. 

As for the argument that speech literally is violence, no, that is not how words work.



6 thoughts on “Let’s rehash! When is speech violence?

  1. It is never words that cause stress. The stress, if any arises, comes from one’s reaction to the words.

    If words could cause stress, “hate speech” spoken in Russian would produce stress within people that speak only English–and they will not.

    The only way that we can have a free society is if all adults take responsibility for both their actions and their reactions. Punching someone in the face is an action. Feeling stress from someone’s words is a reaction.

    My grandmother, who had only a grade-school education, would deal with insults by replying, “Says you.” I recommend that the delicate little snowflakes on our college campuses learn to do the same.

    • I partially agree and partially disagree because I think “cause” is vague here.
      It would definitely be incorrect for someone to say the “words” cause stress; he would have to say “the proposition” causes stress to himself.

      Saying it’s just the recipient’s reaction that is the cause, though, is just shifting the important event forward one post: the stress is indeed caused by the reaction, which is caused by the speech. The reaction, which caused the stress, wouldn’t have happened without the speech, yada yada… so therefore the speech caused the stress. The reason I think someone could argue this way plausibly is because our reactions are often involuntary (instantaneous), whereas speech is more frequently voluntary. (So the factor of human causality can be coordinated there.)

      I will prefer to say for now that “violence” is not an appropriate term.

  2. The crux of her argument depends on actual violence because why would anyone voluntarily endure ‘prolonged stress’ caused by speech if you just can turn away from the offense? As allways it depends on property rights: on my prperty I have a right to listen or not listen to your speech.

Please keep it civil

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