Sticks, Stones, and Free Speech

Isaac Lunt, US Editor, JHU


“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Last week an article was published in this magazine, sporting these lines from the Bill of Rights as its epigraph. The piece argued—as many have and continue to—for the cordial inclusion of unpopular opinions in public discourse. Citing the nation’s history of defending free speech and arguing, “words cannot hurt people,” the article’s author posited that progressive, left-leaning, social-justice, diversity-touting members of college campuses should engage with and challenge alternate viewpoints instead of shouting them down or barring them from the podium. (The article’s author also, confusingly, stated that if people don’t like what someone is saying, they can always ignore it, which sort of negates the whole ‘engage with alternate viewpoints’ thing—but we don’t need to get in to all that).

While it is certainly admirable to argue for openness of discussion and diversity of thought, those who lament the transition on college campuses from ivory-encrusted realms of philosophical debate to intellectual hotbeds for progressive change mourn falsely. What they crave is not true multiplicity of ideas or engagement with them; what they want is their microphone back.

There are a lot of things at work here and, while argumentation frequently leads to conflation, it is important to try and parse the issues and tackle them individually.

The first is a technical point. What many so-called free speech advocates miss in their proud proclamations of the first amendment is the first word. “Congress.” The first amendment constitutes a contract not between individual citizens, but between individual citizens and their government. If you wish to sport a swastika armband and spew Mein Kampf from a street corner, there is nothing that the government can do to stop you; but if one of your fellow free citizens shouts you down for doing so, they are not encroaching on your right to free speech, but responding to what you have used it for. Consider the recent protests at Berkeley in that light.

There is a fundamental disagreement about what constitutes violence. As the article states, “words cannot hurt people.” But they do. In a strictly literal interpretation, it is, of course, absurd to claim that there is any physical damage done to somebody through vocalization. Sound waves, after all, cannot hurt people. But this view is anachronistic in a world where knowledge about social theory and mental health informs us that individuals can feel pain that goes beyond physiology. We know that words can do untold damage to a person’s internal security, mental state, and ability to function at their highest level.

The use of racial slurs or threats is a form of violence because an idea, its utterance, and an action are, on a neuro-philosophical level, indistinguishable. Hateful ideas breed violence, just as peaceful ones breed peace. Thought, speech, and action cannot be logically separated from each other when it comes to finding the source of violence. The neo-Nazi who never tells anybody what he believes and never acts on his hatreds is not as complicit in widespread anti-Semitism and hate crimes as the Reddit troll who does not truly believe what he says, but constantly incites hateful discourse.

Already I can hear the cry going up: “‘Neuro-philosophical space”! ‘speech as violence’! ‘what is this bleeding-heart, lefty snowflakery!’” But to say that speech cannot hurt people is ignorance. Ideas matter. This is not to say we should allow governmental censorship or that hate speech is not defended by the constitution, but it does shed light on those who loudly or violently protest others who would spread incendiary, violent ideas. Many will wish to equate those on the far left and far right, but the fundamental difference seems to be that the radical left is a radical defense of those threatened by the radical right (i.e. Black Lives Matter vs. the KKK).

The other day, a good friend of mine said something that I had to chew on for a while: “Republicans are an oppressed group on campus.”

It is probably true that those with right-of-center views feel ostracized from classroom debates on race, gender, and economics in a time where the progressive viewpoint is coming to dominate intellectual culture. It is understandable that those who feel they have had their rights to speech taken from them would rise against the derision of free speech and the growth of so-called identity politics. And it follows that these same people would begin to champion the “dying art of disagreement” and mourn the death of civilized debate.

But these people are selfishly hypocritical and willfully ignorant about the history of this country. What lies at the epicenter of almost all modern disagreements between the left and the right is the notion that this nation has ever lived up to, or even pretended to live up to, its lofty ideals of equality and freedom.

Members of marginalized communities—people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ+, and others—have never had the chance to occupy space in the public forum in the way their oppressors have. For the first time, those voices are being included in national debates; debates that, a lot of the time, involve their dignity and humanity. Just take a look at the recent NFL protests.

Those who beg for discourse and the acceptance of unpopular beliefs, those who tell others that they need to “shut up and listen” to their opponents instead of stopping them from speaking, are engaged in an enraging hypocrisy: touting their right to “free speech” to silence those who have never had a voice. It seems simple enough to say, but in a dialogue, there must always be one talking and one listening. Those who have occupied positions of privilege and power are reacting very poorly to being asked, for the first time, to listen.


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