DANIEL NESBITT ’22
This dangerous idea has become increasingly common within many college campuses. The danger arises when a group views an individual’s speech as violence and uses this view to justify the response of violent action. This very response manifested in the riots and destruction of private property at Berkley in response to Milo Yiannopoulos, and at Middlebury College when a violent response to Charles Murray resulted in protestors assaulting the professor that interviewed him. One may question the ubiquity of this idea that “speech is violence,” however a 2017 Yale survey found that 81% of students believe that words can be a form of violence.
First, to determine if speech is, in fact, violence, one must clearly define violence. Violence is the deliberate exercise of physical force against a person, property, etc. It is indisputable that violence refers only to physical harm rather than emotional or psychological harm. To be clear, I am not claiming that speech cannot cause emotional or psychological harm. Rather, I argue that speech in and of itself cannot be violence.
Speech obviously can lead to violence; that’s why the First Amendment does not protect speech that is “directed to inciting imminent lawless action and is likely to produce such action” as established in Brandenburg v. Ohio. In other cases, one individual’s speech may cause another individual to commit an act of violence, but if the speech does not meet the Brandenburg standard then the first party cannot be held legally liable. Many still argue that other forms of speech that may lead to violence should be censored to prevent the potential violence from occurring. On the surface this proposition seems quite reasonable, however several studies have shown that in liberal democracies, greater free speech protections are associated with lower levels of violence while greater restrictions on speech are linked with higher levels of violence. That being said, I want to make clear that in no way do I condone the hostile and aggressive speech of President Trump, nor am I trying to defend any particular utterances of his.
The acceptance of this idea that “speech is violence” has very harmful consequences. Today’s college students are experiencing anxiety and depression at higher rates than ever before. The idea that “speech is violence” tells students already greatly afflicted with mental health issues that the world is a more violent, hostile, and menacing place than it is in reality. In addition, as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt point out in The Atlantic, this idea allows a small group of students to rationalize and justify political violence. After the violent riots at Berkeley in protest of Milo, the campus paper ran five articles that sought to justify the violence and destruction of private property. Political violence and the destruction of private property have no place in a free and civil society. This expansive view of speech as violence often leads to even more violence. When members of one group claim to be defending themselves against violent speech and respond violently, it is very likely that an opposing group will respond with even more hostility. In an increasingly polarized America, telling a generation of college students that “speech is violence” could very easily lead to an increase in actual physical violence.
While speech can cause emotional or psychological harm, it cannot cause physical harm, and is therefore incapable of being “violent.” Furthermore, violence is never justified against protected speech, rather more speech is the answer. State your case and expose the flaws of the supposedly hostile ideas rather than resorting to violence.