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.


BC’s weekend reads

  1. Cairo’s Chinatown
  2. Informational post on Turkish grand strategy
  3. Free speech for me, but not for thee (SPLC edition)
  4. Experts and the gold standard and, really, a big key to continued economic development
  5. A bunch of new earth-like planets have been found. The Long Space Age (peep the dates)

BC’s weekend reads

BC’s weekend reads

  1. The demise of ISIS is greatly exaggerated. Good analysis, but Whiteside is still asking the wrong question
  2. 10% of DR Congo’s landmass is dedicated to national parks and other protected environmental areas. Guess how well they’re protected. Privatization might not work here, though. Why not go through traditional “tribal” property rights first, and then, eventually, mix up the customary land rights with private property rights?
  3. Has Stephen Walt been reading reading NOL? This great essay suggests he has…
  4. Russian politics. Authoritarian regimes have factions, too

BC’s weekend reads

  1. The dangers of football safety equipment
  2. Want less pollution? Privatize the roads (just ask the bicyclists)
  3. Octopuses Are ‘the Closest We Will Come to Meeting an Intelligent Alien’
  4. Are Humans the Real Ancient Aliens?
  5. Tennessee Whiskey

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Madonna offers oral sex for those who vote Hillary Clinton
  2. Trump-inspired ‘pussy’ ad banned in San Francisco subway
  3. The poverty of democracy
  4. The battle for the Arctic
  5. Countries rush for upper hand in Antarctica
  6. Why not world government? (Part 2)
  7. Meet China’s state-approved Muslims
  8. The good, the bad, and the ugly of Somaliland secession

Sanders Supporters Don’t Support Sanders’s Policies: A Short Note on Yet Another Reason why “Deliberative Democracy” is a Myth

In the previous part of my democracy series, I took note how the notion of democracy as a “deliberative” means of policymaking is a myth. Contrary to John Dewey, Sidney Hook, and Joshua Cohen, who characterize democracy as an application of the scientific method to political problems and as deliberative “intelligence” directing society, democracy is really the rule of the irrational and ignorant, as public choice theory teaches. Deliberative reasoning does not determine policy in democracies, but rather whoever can cater the best to systemically biased and rationally ignorant voters. Voters don’t give deliberative reasons for their policies, and if they do they, contra Cohen, clearly do not have an equal say in the formation of policies as, according to public choice theory, special interests have the most control over it.

However, I neglected one important other reason why actual political democracies are anything but “deliberative:” voters rarely chose their candidates based off of careful deliberation of issues; they instead chose candidates based off of cultural associations with the candidates. Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels recently took note of this in the New York Times:

The notion that elections are decided by voters’ carefully weighing competing candidates’ stands on major issues reflects a strong faith in American political culture that citizens can control their government from the voting booth. We call it the “folk theory” of democracy.

…But wishing so does not make it so. Decades of social-scientific evidence show that voting behavior is primarily a product of inherited partisan loyalties, social identities and symbolic attachments. Over time, engaged citizens may construct policy preferences and ideologies that rationalize their choices, but those issues are seldom fundamental.

That last note is very reminiscent of another point made in my last article on democracy about how evidence from moral psychology, specifically Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, shows that voters do not use reason to determine their political or moral views, but rather reason serves as a servant to the passions. In this case, far from deliberatively and intelligently choosing policy preferences, it seems voters are letting their deliberation serve passions that are influenced by social and cultural affiliations rather than actually informed policy stances.

Achen and Bartels show how this is in action specifically in the recent Democratic Primary:

…It is very hard to point to differences between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders’s proposed policies that could plausibly reflect account for such substantial cleavages [in polls]. They are reflections of social identities, plausible commitments and partisan loyalties.

Yet commentators who have been ready and willing to attribute Donald Trump’s success to anger, authoritarianism, or racism rather than policy issues have taken little note of the extent to which Mr. Sanders’s support [sic]is concentrated not among liberal ideologues but among disaffected white men.

More evidence casts further doubt on the notion that support for Mr. Sanders reflects a shift to the left in the policy preferences of Democrats. In a survey conducted for the American National Election Studies in January, supporters of Mr. Sanders were more pessimistic than Mrs. Clinton’s supporters about “opportunity in America today for the average person to get ahead” and more likely to say that economic inequality had increased.

However, they were less likely than Mrs. Clinton’s supporters to favor concrete policies that Mr. Sanders has offered such as remedies for these ills, including a higher minimum wage, increasing government on health care and an expansion of government services financed by higher taxes. It is quite a stretch to view these people as the vanguard of a new, social-democratic-trending Democratic Party.

Achen and Bartels further note that, despite the enthusiastic support from young Democrats, these younger voters actually disagree more with Sanders on specific policy issues than older democratic voters, noting that “even on specific issues championed by Mr. Sanders” such as “increased government funding of healthcare,” “a higher minimum wage,” and “expanding government services,” younger Democrats tend to disagree with Sanders’ more than older ones. In fact, I would be willing to bet that most of Sanders’ voters that Achen and Bartels write about are completely rationally ignorant of their disagreements with their favorite candidate in the first place. I also would add these cultural influences on voting at the expense of policy deliberation to Caplan’s theory of “irrational rationality;” cultural associations and symbolic commitments decrease the costs of holding an irrational political belief.

It is clear, then, that this “folk theory of democracy” in which voters deliberately consider policy alternatives and make reasoned, rational decisions for why they prefer one candidates’ policies to another is a myth. If it is the case that voters are not only rationally ignorant and irrational, that democracy is more controlled by concentrated interests at the expense of the public good, and that voters make their electoral decisions based off of cultural associations rather than deliberations about policy, what can be said about political democracy’s aim at philosophical democracy? What can be said of the existence, or possibility, of intelligent, deliberately directed democratic institutions? It seems that democratic institutions in reality completely undermine democratic aspirations in theory.

PS: No, this is not the fourth part of the democracy series, should be up this weekend.
[H/T Jason Brennan]