Conflating Speech and Violence Spells the End of Free Expression
By Benny Huang October 2, 2017
After weeks of footdragging, the University of California at Berkeley finally allowed conservative commentator Ben Shapiro to speak on campus on September 14th—albeit after charging the event organizers an unconstitutional “security fee.” The Left’s sick attempt to deploy the heckler’s veto to silence this articulate, thoughtful man did not rule the day as it did last April when Ann Coulter was prevented from speaking on campus.Thank goodness for small victories.
Amazingly, no one died. No one was even hurt, though if someone had been hurt it would not have been Shapiro’s fault. It would have been the fault of whoever perpetrated the violence, probably one of those well-known proponents of “love” and “tolerance,” wearing a mask and swinging a club. But you wouldn’t have known how harmless the whole thing was from talking to the protesters, many of whom chanted “Speech is violence” outside the venue.
Speech is violence? No, it isn’t. Speech is speech. Violence is violence. They’re too very different things. That’s something we all should have learned as children but alas, some of us apparently didn’t.
When Shapiro had his chance to speak he let the protesters outside know how foolish they sounded. “The idea is that if I attack your ideas, if I say that you have bad ideas, what I am really doing is attacking you personally. I’m attacking your identity. I’m aggressing you. You might require counseling. This is the philosophy of microaggressions. My words are violence. Even the term ‘microaggression’ suggests that it is an aggression against you, right? Microaggressions. I am aggressing you. It’s an act of violence. As NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has said, ‘Microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless.’ …And the thing is that microaggressions are actual violence. This is why you see the dolts outside shouting that speech is violence, because they think that I am actually doing them violence when they don’t hear me. But if they would hear me, then presumably I would be doing them violence and they would need counseling, and if they act with violence it’s because it’s in response.”
Thank you, Mr. Shapiro, for exposing one of the insidious reasons that leftists push the “speech is violence” trope. Calling someone else’s words “violence” is an attempt to justify one’s own violence as an act of self-defense. Sure, people on the Left break people’s faces with bicycle locks but people on the Right started it. They wore MAGA hats, or they opposed affirmative action, same-sex marriage, abortion, or whatever, which means that they threw the first “punch.” And even though the “punch” was entirely rhetorical that doesn’t make it any less real. Actual bone-crushing violence on the part of the Left is therefore an understandable reaction to rhetorical violence from the Right.
But there is another reason the Left pushes this “speech is violence” nonsense. If speech is truly violence then it must be restrained. We wouldn’t entertain the notion of a First Amendment right to walk around hacking off people’s limbs with a machete, would we? Of course not. If mere words are somehow indistinguishable from a physical attack because both can wound then we have an obligation to gag people.
Sounds like the end of the First Amendment as we know it. Might that be the point?
It should be noted here that the protesters outside Shapiro’s event didn’t just come up with this idea on their own. It’s being spoon-fed to them in their courses. They’re learning this anti-constitutional, cultural Marxist garbage at a taxpayer-funded institution.
In light of “Free Speech Week,” an event that was supposed to feature a number of dissenting conservative voices, students and faculty debated whether the right to invite such speakers should be protected. According to the New York Times, “At Berkeley, there are both unequivocal voices championing the importance of free speech, no matter how inflammatory, and professors who say lines need to be drawn on campuses. These professors argue that the First Amendment needs to be reassessed for reasons that include the rise of internet trolling and cyberbullying and that some scientific research now shows that hateful speech can cause physical pain. There are faculty members who explicitly reject violence as a way to counter hateful speech, and others who say it is acceptable if used against what are perceived as fascist intruders.” (Emphasis added.)
And there you have it—speech is violence and shall be met with more violence. It’s okay to punch Nazis and everyone who doesn’t think like a Berkeley social justice warrior is basically a Nazi, whether openly or crypto.
“Words can be like rape — they can destroy you,” said Berkeley Professor Nancy Scheper-Hughes. Really? Like rape? These people are impossible to parody. Free speech is not rape and if it were we would be morally obligated to repeal the First Amendment and to do penance for permitting it to stand for more than two centuries. Scheper-Hughes continued: “The Supreme Court is behind the times. The First Amendment deserves to be re-looked at.”
“Re-looked at.” “Reassessed.” These are code words for what the Left has done to other parts of the Constitution—the free exercise clause, the Tenth Amendment—which is to render them dead letters via judicial perversion. What they really want—and what they would openly advocate if they weren’t despicable liars—is to repeal the First Amendment. But repealing amendments is difficult, especially one that has been as traditionally cherished as the First, so they look to the courts to neuter it instead. It’s a tactic that has worked well in the past.
But Scheper-Hughes is wrong when she says that the Court is “behind the times.” Historically speaking, free speech is a relatively new concept and in that regard SCOTUS is very much ahead of the times.
According to free speech advocate Flemming Rose, the Danish editor most responsible for Jyllands Posten’s 2006 publication of a series of controversial (to say the least) cartoons depicting Mohammed, speech was considered a form of violence until modern times. He writes in his excellent book “The Tyranny of Silence”: “Until the 17th Century, words and actions were treated identically throughout Western Europe. Verbal expressions of deviant or unorthodox notions in religious matters was taken to be a physical attack on the Church, its members, and God. Speaking out in favor of political change or against the existing order was perceived as incitement to rebellion or treason. Exactly the same was true of totalitarian societies of the 20th Century.”
It’s clear that when we stop distinguishing between speech and violence we are actually backsliding to a time when suffocating orthodoxy reigned supreme. It’s downright medieval. Giving up on free speech means admitting that our grand experiment in free minds and the free exchange of ideas has actually been a failure. We’re saying that we need an authority to determine and enforce right thinking, as well as to ferret out and punish wrong thinking. I’m sure the campus Left sees themselves as that authority and they’re probably right. They run academia and they decide what’s out of bounds. But what if they lost that power? Would they still like censorship so much? I doubt it. Then they’d find out how it feels to be forcibly silenced—in other words, to be the kind of “marginalized groups” they pretend to be now.
Free speech is the foundational idea of a classically liberal society. We learn that while some people’s ideas may rub us the wrong way, may even make our blood boil, those people have a right to their ideas just as we have a right to ours. Free speech is a reciprocal agreement among members of a society that each will tolerate the others’ words. Things change when someone crosses the line into violence. If there is truly no distinction between speech and violence then we cannot have a classically liberal society. We must start locking each other up for our ideas, a proposition that has gained considerable support in places like Canada and Western Europe that delude themselves into believing that they are still free.