May has been a disheartening month for the critical notion that speech is not violence – and thus violence is never justified against speech. We began the month with news that a feminist philosophy professor was bullied by other scholars, until a journal issued a statement of regret for publishing her peer-reviewed article, because many believed her ideas perpetuated “violence.” Greg Gianforte assaulted a reporter for bothering him with questions about health care policy, and then became a member of Congress. Universities continued to deny speakers invited by their student groups access to their campuses, for fear of violence from both supporters and opponents of the speaker. Bret Weinstein, a biology professor at Evergreen State College, was told by campus police to leave campus for a few days due to concerns for his safety.
There are so many worrisome developments happening in our country and abroad. Just in the early hours of today, we laughed at a President who, unable to be checked or controlled, cannot manage to edit statements on a public platform. There are racist and hateful incidents of violence perpetuated on trains in Portland and near the presidential palace in Kabul. But with the concrete, we must deal with the abstract. One development that is most worrisome for the soul of our country is that we are becoming a nation that increasingly responds to ideas with violence.
I write this not to assign blame. We are all responsible, in myriad ways. Right now, those who equate speech with violence remain in the minority – just as those willing to behave violently for a variety of reasons remain in the minority. I write because this problem will only get worse unless we re-examine our values, our responses to those with bad values (even those in power), and our unique First Amendment traditions. This is a problem borne of fear, of polarity, and of intolerance.
The inspiration for doxing, following Professor Weinstein, and creating graffiti stating “Fire Bret” was his opposition to a campus policy requiring that all faculty hires be subject to a “equity justification/explanation” and his objection to asking white students to leave for a Day of Absence to reflect on racism. Professor Weinstein appreciates the importance of a diverse faculty but doesn’t believe an equity rationale should be the most important factor in faculty hiring. He is supported on social media by many students, including minority students, who believe that he is a thoughtful and kind teacher.
There are varying accounts of what happened at Evergreen State. Many eloquently expressed their justifications and sought to protest peacefully. According to one student, Weinstein’s views disregard and encourage the very real violence experienced by minority populations and perpetrated by white supremacists/the alt-right. This fear of violence is real, and cannot be dismissed. Much of the point of speech is to convince, and speech can convince people to do terrible things.
But what we are seeing now is more people believing that the ideas themselves must be stamped out, not through dialog but through illegal action – vandalism, threats, even assault. The pace of this growing idea appears to match the pace of political polarization, where each side believes the other’s are truly dangerous. The equating of speech and violence is justified by the increase of hate crimes since President Donald Trump was elected. (Of course, there have always been hate crimes in this perennially racist, sexist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic country; I believe part of the growing concern is that these crimes are now more visible/broadcasted.)
There are always seemingly good reasons for equating speech with violence. Speech causes great harm, just like violence. Speech can disrupt our lives, our privacy, and our sense of self, just like violence. And speech can lead, down an attenuated path, to violence. However, these ideas are not violence. When people believe ideas, in and of themselves, threaten violence, they justify reacting with violence, property destruction, and direct and concrete harm. That harm is the violence. In the past, when I heard about incidents in other countries of rioting and violence in response to speech, I believed that we, in America, understood that speech and violence are different, and that one cannot justify the other. I am becoming less sure.
In our current First Amendment regime, speech that may be considered related to violence is protected from censorship unless (1) the speech is reasonably directed to and will likely incite imminent lawless action, or (2) a reasonable person would perceive that speech as threatening violence. Speech must reach the high bars for incitement and true threats (or the very narrow definition of what is left of the fighting words doctrine) before it is considered out of the realm of pure speech. For that reason, Kathy Griffin is able to parody beheading Trump, in the style of the Islamic State, without being arrested for incitement to terrorism. In France, she may have been jailed for her parody, for which she later apologized.
There are many more concrete, objectionable things happening in our country. We are currently deciding issues involving climate change policy, health care reform, and transgender rights, while contending with a President who spills national security secrets and is under investigation for collaborating with a foreign enemy. Even through all of that, if we safeguard our First Amendment rights, and hold dear the value that speech is never violence, I believe that we will make it through. In contrast, without the critical distinction between speech and violence, progress is not possible and orthodoxy of opinion will reign.
Perhaps many enjoy orthodoxy of opinion. People whose views are in the majority in any community often mistake their opinions and political stances for fact. Often, their majority view seems eminently correct, and even necessary. But this has been true throughout history – individuals, who believe that their views are correct, stamp out other views (many of which are actually more correct). What we all need, from the President on down, is some perspective and humility, and the realization that forced orthodoxy of opinion, through fear instead of dialog, is anathema to growth, fairness, and the American experiment.