Speech isn’t violence


Speech isn’t violence

Jonathan Zimmerman

February 25, 2019

When the actor Jussie Smollett charged that two men in “Make America Great Again” hats attacked him while yelling racist and homophobic taunts, my fellow liberals were quick to blame the rise in such incidents upon President Trump and his supporters.

Smollett was arrested last week for faking the whole episode, but the larger trend is real: Hate crimes have spiked during the Trump era. And surely the President’s own bigoted rhetoric — Mexicans are rapists, Africans and others live in “shithole” countries, and so on — has something to do with that.

So why aren’t we also denouncing the culture of intolerance on America’s campuses, where dissenting voices have faced physical attacks? And doesn’t our silence on that score make us partially responsible for the violence, just as Trump is complicit in hate crimes?

Consider the assault on a conservative activist last week at the University of California-Berkeley, where he was displaying posters declaring “This is MAGA country” — which Smollett said his attackers shouted — and “Hate crime hoaxes hurt real victims.”

Two men accosted the activist. One denounced him for “encouraging violence”; as if on cue, another man then punched the activist in the face.

Noting that the incident took place on Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza, epicenter of the university’s Free Speech Movement in 1964, school officials were quick to denounce it. “We strongly condemn violence and harassment of any sort, for any reason,” they said in a statement. “Our commitment to freedom of expression and belief is unwavering.”

But the plain fact is that respect for free speech is eroding on our campuses, precisely because so many people view it as violence. So we shouldn’t be surprised when they respond with the physical kind.

That’s what happened at Middlebury College in March of 2017, where a mob attacked author Charles Murray and injured the political science professor who had invited him. Two months after that, students at Evergreen State College forced biology professor Bret Weinstein to leave campus; administrators urged him not to return, warning that they “could no longer guarantee his safety.”

Unlike Murray, a noted conservative, Weinstein is a staunch liberal who supported Bernie Sanders in the last presidential election. His sin was to oppose a so-called “Day of Absence” at Evergreen, in which all white people were asked to leave the campus.

And later that fall, protesters interrupted a talk I was giving at Western Washington University — in favor of free speech, ironically — on the grounds that I was promoting violence. “Advocating for the right to racist, sexist, and transphobic speech is violent,” one of their signs read.

No actual violence erupted that day. Surely, though, the pernicious idea that speech is violence provides a convenient pretext for the real kind. If my talk was the equivalent of punching others in the nose, wouldn’t they be within their rights to punch me first? Or, at least, to raise their fists in self-defense?

That argument was on toxic display during the last big free-speech controversy at Berkeley, over a scheduled speech in 2017 by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Since Yiannopolous’ anti-gay and anti-trans comments were violent, protesters argued, it was legitimate or even necessary to counter them with physical violence.

Indeed, some demonstrators claimed, any riposte to that argument was itself violent. “Asking people to maintain peaceful dialogue with those who legitimately do not think their lives mater is a violent act,” wrote one Berkeley graduate in the student newspaper.

So I guess she would read this column, too, as a form of violence. And she wouldn’t be alone. According to a 2017 survey of 800 undergraduates around the country, 81% think that words can be violent. And 30% — that is, almost one out of three — think that physical violence can be justified to prevent someone from using offensive words.

You can’t have a free university — or a free society — on those terms. Words will always offend someone. And if you construe them as violent, you clear the way for physical assault upon anyone who gives offense.

That seems to be what happened last week at Berkeley, where one attacker said that conservative speech encouraged violence. But the rest of us encourage it, too, if we don’t step up to denounce the whole idea of speech as violence. It’s too easy to criticize President Trump for stoking hate and intolerance. It’s a lot harder to look in the mirror.

Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author “Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.