In the aftermath of the infamous Battle for Berkeley, the subsequent debacle surrounding Ann Coulter’s invitation to the University of California’s flagship campus, not to mention the attempted infidel-stoning of Charles Murray at Middlebury and the rioting that forced Heather Mac Donald to speak to a mostly empty room at Claremont McKenna College, defenders of this kind of campus illiberalism have taken to offering a single defense of this behavior. The argument, in sum, is the use of violent tactics is justified against certain types of speech, because those types of speech harm certain people and thus are inherently violent. In short, words we deem “hate speech” are violent, so why not use force to shut them down?
The key point has been made: the premise that speech is violence is not merely unsupportable at a philosophical level, but also at a practical one. It is an invitation not so much to the tragedy of totalitarian thought control as to simply a thoughtless, wordless, brainless farce.
Now, any number of sober commentators across the political spectrum have pointed out the alarming implications of this doctrine, which they characterize (correctly) as an invitation to totalitarianism. Thus, the most common response to the “speech is violent” canard appears to be an obsessive effort at proving that it isn’t true, and never will be true, because if it were true, it would be too horrible to think of the implications.
While I obviously appreciate these efforts at disproving this preposterous and poisonous notion of speech-as-violence, it seems to me they too often put those of us defending the old Western tradition of free speech on the back foot. If we are too afraid to go beyond refutation, we miss out on an entire class of arguments that could very easily make the speech-equals-violence idea unattractive not merely to those who already fear its implications, but even to some of those who might otherwise be open to it.
Only those of us on the Right can force the Left to confront the truly asinine consequences of this idea, because as of now, only we are capable of the kind of rigorous analysis that would reveal those consequences. One of the key weaknesses of the Left, especially in its modern form, is its utter incapacity for systemic thinking. After all, systems are cold and mean, and having to think in their terms often silences the “marginalized voices” of over-emotional intellectual weaklings. If you actually do apply the logic of a system to the argument that speech is violence, however, you run up against the fact that this doctrine not only prevents speech by politically disfavored groups: it arguably prevents speech altogether.
To demonstrate this, let us assume that certain forms of speech are, in fact, violent. If that is the case, then it would seem to follow that the principles our society uses to deal with physical violence should also be applicable to verbal violence.
One of those principles is the idea of proportionality, and of degrees of harm. For example, if someone pinches you, it’s generally considered a disproportionate response to cut off his arm in retaliation. Further, there are even extents to which the same violent act can be considered worse depending on the circumstances. Consider homicide. First degree murder isn’t just killing someone, it’s killing someone having planned it out in advance. Second degree murder, on the other hand, is just homicide that happens in the spur of the moment—a crime of passion. Manslaughter is homicide that happens in a situation you might not have intended to happen, strictly speaking, but which you should have known would happen, etc.
Given these facts about how society treats actual physical violence, it would seem we have to ask some uncomfortable questions if we choose to treat speech as a form of violence:
- If certain types of speech are violence, are all types of speech proportional to each other? That is, is screaming the n-word at a black person a worse form of violent speech than quoting Charles Murray to them? If not, how do we figure out what a proportionate response is to being attacked with violent speech? What level of rhetorical violence is too much or too little? For that matter, what level of physical violence is too much or too little, and how do we analogize the degree of rhetorical harm to the degree of physical harm? Is quoting a Christina Hoff Sommers video equal to pinching someone? Throwing a punch? Murder
- Relatedly, if we consider, say, racist speech to be de facto violent speech, then is there such a thing as first degree racism, second degree racism, or manslaughter-level racism? Would citing Richard Spencer approvingly, knowing what he believes, be first degree racism, as opposed to posting something he wrote without knowing who he is (which would be more like second degree murder or manslaughter)? If there are degrees of speech violence, then how do we determine the appropriate response to each? If there are not degrees, then do we default to the worst possible punishment or the least possible punishment for an offense? How do we determine what the worst possible punishment is?
- How do we adjudicate the appropriate response to violent speech if the very act of debating guilt might itself be violent? How would even a universal SJW court manage sentencing if they couldn’t even talk about the deserved punishment without possibly engaging in negligent violence?
- Alternately, since economics teaches us that cardinal utility is nonexistent, is it not possible that even speech most people consider to be harmless could end up being harmful to one specific person, and therefore be negligent violence? Could we be in a “Knights Who Say Ni” type situation where the word “it” harms someone? If so, what’s the point of talking at all, if you might inadvertently be guilty of something? Why not simply regress to grunting and pointing?
- Actually, forget grunting and pointing, because while we’re on the subject, what constitutes speech? Do nonsense syllables count? Let’s say someone points at his penis when looking at a woman a certain way. Is this speech because she can infer the message, even if he never uttered a sound? If so, can we call gestures violent speech in some contexts? How do we know what they are, and how do we decide what they are, if (as already established) it might be too dangerous to talk?
- What’s the point of communicating at all? There’s always the risk of assaulting someone without knowing it.
I gather there is no need to waste more words and thought on this endlessly escalating absurdity. The key point has been made: the premise that speech is violence is not merely unsupportable at a philosophical level, but also at a practical one. It is an invitation not so much to the tragedy of totalitarian thought control as to simply a thoughtless, wordless, brainless farce. It surely invites us to Hell, but the Hell involved is best described as some bleak combination of C.S. Lewis’ “grey town” with Tumblr: a universe in which endlessly isolated souls continue to shift their own individual safe spaces further and further apart out of mutual hatred. In place of the vibrancy of the marketplace of ideas, it hands us solitary confinement in a solipsistic mind deprived even of the comforting capacity to frame thoughts.
In short, it would be very tempting to call the doctrine that “speech is violence” one of the most purely violent ideas we know if even a cursory investigation into the idea that speech can be violence did not yield us enough information to know better. For the sake of avoiding the absurd questions and consequences it raises, however, it is best that we dismiss that urge.