Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. The childish playground ditty is at least partly true: Mere words cannot break an arm or bust a nose. Words can be hurtful emotionally and psychologically, but they cannot be acts of violence because they lack physicality.
Some academics and journalists need this reminder. In the pages of the New York Times, Amanda Hess claims that “America is struggling to sort out where violence begins and ends.” She dignifies the theory that “violence is embedded in everything from our social structures to our speech — that speech itself can be a form of violence, one every bit as meaningful as the physical kind.”
Lisa Feldman Barrett tries to clothe the emperor’s nakedness with a veil of respectability in her own Times op-ed, “When is speech violence?” The result is comical. She argues, without a whiff of irony, that because offensive words can cause stress, and “prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech — at least certain types of speech — can be a form of violence.” By that logic, of course, being evicted is also a form of violence, since eviction causes prolonged stress.
Despite its ivory-tower proponents, the speech-violence theory should be rejected as both ignorant and dangerous.
From these we may ascertain different senses of the term’s usage. We might say that one speaks violently to describe the manner or delivery of a speaker’s message. We might call words violent when their semantic content is particularly gory or grotesque. But words cannot themselves be acts of violence, even if everyone knows that words can inspire violence. (A fine line should be drawn between violent acts inspired by speech and the expression itself.)
Speech-violence theories are dangerous because they undermine free-speech norms, which are central to a political life of civic republicanism and virtuous self-government. If utterances of speech are truly violence, then government can ban them as criminal conduct, just as we prohibit other forms of private violence.
Of course, such an elastic definition neuters violence of any coherent meaning.
Take “misgendering” as an example. Transgender TV star Laverne Cox has said that “misgendering a transgendered person” is “an act of violence.” Another transgender activist, Riley Dennis, argues that common dictionary definitions of violence such as those I examined above are “outdated,” and that “violence” includes “all types of societal power imbalances” that might cause “psychological harm” by making a transgendered person “feel bad.” Nora Berenstain, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Tennessee, adds that using words and phrases like “transgenderism,” “male genitalia,” and “biological sex” is also a form of “discursive transmisogynistic violence.” And on and on it goes.
If “misgendering” is an act of violence, then New York City’s speech code imposing staggering fines for “incorrect” pronoun usage is legitimate. Under the Orwellian theory of speech-violence, refusing to endorse a controversial anthropological claim about the nature of human sexuality constitutes violence, no different from punching an ideological opponent in the face. The same speech-violence theory underlies France’s decision to criminalize expression that exerts “psychological and moral pressure” on women considering abortion.
Of course, such an elastic definition neuters violence of any coherent meaning. Anything resulting from what social-justice advocates label a “power imbalance” — which according to their dogma is just about everything — would then be considered “violence.” Set aside for a moment the question of whether identifying an individual using pronouns that correspond to his or her biological sex or expressing moral disapproval of abortion actually causes psychological harm. The notion that words that make people “feel bad” are acts of violence is frighteningly capacious.
What government bureaucracy can be trusted to discern which instances of speech rise to the level of “violence”? A circumspect evaluation of human frailty and partisanship should be a stark warning to those would entrust government with that authority.
If words that make people feel bad are violence, then people who are offended would be justified in using physical force as a means of self-defense. Some masked campus radicals already cheer this notion, and welcome it as a convenient excuse to go on riotous rampages to stop controversial speakers from invading their safe spaces with ideas they dislike. Those who care about the free exchange of ideas have cause for concern.
Rather than proscribe uncouth or impolitic speech as violence, Americans should heed Justice Brandeis’s wise words from Whitney v. California, which recall the original purpose of constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech:
Those who won our independence . . . believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that, without free speech and assembly, discussion would be futile; that, with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. They recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject. But they knew that . . . fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law — the argument of force in its worst form. Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed.
— Josh Craddock is a student at Harvard Law School and the editor-in-chief of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., with his wife and two children.