“Avada Kedavra!” —Voldemort
It must have been J. K. Rowling. That’s the only explanation that makes sense.
Rowling, with her Harry Potter series, somehow convinced a generation of kids that words, spoken in just the right sequence, can affect the physical world in exactly the same way force can. After exhausting every other rational explanation, it’s the only explanation I can conjure for the recent events at Middlebury College and USC, where Charles Murray and Dave Rubin respectively found themselves on the receiving end of the heckler’s veto.
It’s the only explanation that helps me understand how, in our lifetime, we’ve seen a return to pre-Enlightenment notions about the power of the spoken word to affect physical reality—leading what should be otherwise rational people to coerce, threaten, and inflict violence upon those who would hear or say words with which they disagree.
Of course, Rowling is not the first to attribute externalities to verbal formulas. It’s an archetypal concept: the idea of magic words causing malfeasance and cataclysmic transformation.
Magic incantations and the effects of blasphemy are part and parcel of all great fantasy works and even of a loudly criticised religious mindset that history and sophisticates attribute to previous generations. As we’re all too aware, in Medieval times people were burned at the stake for the crime of uttering the wrong words. The Greeks, too, told story after story about the utterances of mortals causing catastrophe.
In addition to Potter, modern fantasy works are replete with examples and admonitions about the power of words and names. The idea in both ancient thinking and contemporary fantasy fiction is that names and words can affect real change in the physical world. Words are no different from physical tools and weapons.
We now have a generation of young adults who—having been raised on a steady diet of participation trophies, no educational or emotional grounding in history and tradition, and an inversion of traditional “sticks and stones” thinking (now words can hurt you)—take to the magical, fantastic, and quasi-religious in their attempts to carve out meaning. Even more sobering is the realization that violence is a natural outgrowth of this magical thinking and not an aberration. For many students, anti-speech violence is not immoral. For years they’ve been taught that “words can hurt more than sticks and stones.” It should come as no surprise then, that they’d turn to sticks and stones to protect the world from the dangers of words.
There’s a school of thought among scholars that argues religion is part and parcel of human nature. Human beings are wired to experience the religious and to create systems around that experience. The theory posits that regardless of whether formal religion rises and falls in a society, our perception of the world will always be religious, regardless of what label we give that filter. The current anti-free speech phenomena lends credence to this theory. Today’s concern with the dangers of hate speech, dangerous speech, and even a more recent fear that knowledge itself can be corruptive are evidence of this.
Even the pedantic dogmatism and preoccupation with the correct use of language speaks to this. Forget for a moment so-called “blasphemers” like Milo Yiannopoulos and Charles Murray. Put aside as well good-faith dialogue seekers such as Dave Rubin and let’s examine how even those with the best of intentions are treated.
Without the correct formulas, incantations and prayers aren’t just ineffectual, they’re counterproductive and possibly toxic. Get a word in a spell wrong and you go Diagonally instead of to Diagon Alley. Good and moral people are pronounced heretical and can be fined for incorrect pronoun usage. A “March for Science,” trying to be inclusive, is forced to apologize for its use of the term “female.” People are no longer judged by what they mean, which context often makes plain—it’s the minutiae of speech that matters. Get the details wrong and all hell can literally break loose. What we’re seeing on college campuses is nothing short of a birth of a new quasi-religious movement in pursuit of an ill defined but passionately pursued eschatology.
Modern Western religion has had two millennia to make big mistakes, attempt to correct them, and find ways not only to coexist with but, even more, to make contributions to a post-Enlightenment civic society that values free speech and the open exchange of ideas. But this new religious expression is unbridled by civility or civics and is instead left free to the passionately amorphous whims of its adherents. It is an expression of the religious impulse without the benefits of experience and history to guide it. It is a religious crusade masquerading as political activism without any developed language for clear expression other than the irrational, the emotional and the violent.
There is, of course, an ineffable irony to the idea that the same demographic group that most loudly eschews traditional religion, has appropriated the vagaries of religion to suit its political goals.
So congratulations, students! You have finally returned to the ancient—to a time when words were so powerful they could affect cataclysmic change and when desperate action is needed to stop them. You may not be called religious, you may not understand why you do what you do, but make no mistake about it, you’re engaging in religion.
Thankfully, the broader American society, in keeping with its Enlightenment origins, continues to embrace the notion that words and ideas are objectively distinct from force and deeds. Words can affect you emotionally, but unlike the use of force they aren’t able to take away any of your liberty, cause you physical injury, or kill you. At this point, in the United States at least, there are still philosophical and legal distinctions between words and externalities. Sure, we may quibble about the details of incitement and the limits of speech in situations where visceral instincts could curtail reason (falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater is the oft-used example). But our society is one that has made a very clear line of demarcation between what is said and what is done. Any attempt to blur that distinction—to conflate word with deed—should be seen as an attempt to fundamentally change the nature of the fabric of our society.
Until there’s proof that magic words exist that can actually create externalities akin to the use of force—until Harry Potter’s spells and curses are fact—speech needs to be free and J. K. Rowling’s notions of unforgivable curses, words so dangerous that they can kill, need to stay within the realm of fantasy where they belong.