Words don’t hurt people. People hurt people. Sounds childish—you could just say people hurt people with words—but there’s a real difference there. Eventually I’ll prove this, but for now I’ll come right out and say that speech cannot be violence.
A couple hypotheticals:
1. Bo tells Ma to hit Jim. Ma does so. Did Bo hit Jim, or did Ma?
2. Li says hitting Jim is bad. Ma doesn’t like Li, so in reaction, Ma hits Jim. Did Li hit Jim?
Of course not. The more relevant question, though, is whether Li performed an act of violence against Jim.
The political left would tend to agree that Bo’s speech was violent. They may even fly into an uproar. Take a look at the tarfeathering of Bruce Gilley last week for a perfect example, replete with claims of “violence” and “brutaliz[ation].” And it’s not just the left: Consider the right’s constant claims of “war on Christianity/the family/traditional morals/etc.” Same stuff, different angle.
But we’ve got to reconsider whether speech can even be violent in the first place.
Lisa Feldman Barrett lays out a pretty great case that it can be in her New York Timesarticle, “When is speech violent?”, claiming that offensive or aggressive speech can cause heavy stress, which then leads to shortening of life by unraveling chromosomes and all the other shitty things that heavy stress can do. More commonly the argument for conflating speech with violence goes something like, “Harm doesn’t have to be physical. Psychological harm counts.” Both of these arguments seem, on first glance, super reasonable.
But they’re also based on a model of psychology that squashes the idea of individual thought.
Lots of modern arguments about violent speech can be traced back to ideas laid out by J.L. Austin in his 1956 paper, “Performative Utterances.” And while these modern arguments totally caught the part where Austin said that speech can do things rather than just saying things, they largely ignore his first requirement: Words that intend to do things must draw upon some convention that allows them to do those things, and that convention must be accepted.
Charlayne Woodard’s 1995 play Pretty Fire shows us exactly the difference between accepting and deconstructing the conventions that would allow words to harm us. The young narrator gets shook and refuses to run a race at school after a classmate shouts, “Run, nigger, run!”
When the narrator gets back home and tells her mom about the incident, Mom convinces her that that particular slur is no worse than “peach pit” or “stinkweed” unless she allows it to be. Her acceptance of the conventional power of the slur actualizes that power. Mom shows the narrator that she doesn’t have to accept those conventions. The two end up laughing themselves into repose on the grass in a scene of serene triumph.
There is an important midpoint between hateful speech and inflicted harm: Acceptance of the harm. If someone yells some racist bullshit in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it hurt anyone? Nope. Said bullshit needs a listener to actualize its conventional potential for harm, either by accepting it or by committing violence because of it.
This sounds like victim-blaming. It isn’t. It’s simply that we have far more power over ourselves than we allow ourselves to realize, and that power is inalienable. You are the only one who can directly change your own brain.
But maybe you don’t think you have that power. Maybe you think you completely ride the whims of whomever may be directing their mouth-waves at you. Thinking that speech can be violence still lands us on some murky waters.
Back to the hypotheticals at the beginning. In number 1, sure, Bo is an asshole, but Ma throws the punch. But let’s assume for a second that Bo did commit violence by successfully ordering Ma to hit Jim, because what we mean when we say “violent speech” is really speech that influences another to commit violent actions.
Then did Li not commit violence against Jim by trying to defend Jim, because Li’s defense influenced Ma to hit Jim? The meanings of Bo and Li’s statements may have been opposites, but they both led to the same action because of the way Ma reacted to them.
It’s intuitively clear that Li didn’t commit any violence by defending Jim unless Li knew that Ma would react to the defense by hitting Jim. Is Li’s defense then violent, and would Li actually be preventing violence by telling Ma to hit Jim?
If we say that Li definitely committed no violence by defending Jim, we’ve got to conclude that neither Li’s intentions nor the results of Li’s statement matter to our decision on whether Li spoke violently. But if violent speech doesn’t have to cause harm, we have removed the violence from the speech, therefore “Violent speech” becomes nothing but a metaphor with no coherent literal meaning.
If we say that Li committed violence because Li knew how Ma would react, we have to admit that the meanings of the words and phrases used don’t matter in deciding whether speech is violent. We admit that no unintentional violence can be done by speech. Microaggressions, then, do not exist, and slurs are not taboo.
If we assume, then, that speech has the potential to be violent, we must either say that “violent speech” is only a metaphor or that speech taboos are indefensible. Neither of these conclusions jives with the way the concept “violent speech” is used in modern politics.
To recap, the two main points: First, the concept of violent speech used in current political conversations (for example, in backlash to Bruce Gilley’s article or in talking about the war on the traditional family) is incoherent. Second, the idea that speech itself can constitute violence completely disregards the agency of its listeners.
A person is only harmed by hearing the speech if they perceive the speech as harmful, and a person chooses whether to commit violence because of speech. Speech can be hateful, ignorant, or downright stupid—and a bit of all three seem to be scattered throughout Gilley’s aforementioned article—but speech cannot be violent. Responses to speech can be violent.
Disagree? Comment on this post, and I’ll respond to your disagreements next week.
When I was a young feminist – working at my first job in a women’s nonprofit and eager to single-handedly take on the patriarchy – there was a common refrain from the older generation that infuriated me and my peers: Where are all the young feminists? We were right there, fetching coffee and making photocopies to help the cause, and yet we’d hear over and over again that young women simply weren’t interested in the movement.
The idea that young people are politically apathetic on feminist issues has always been a myth, of course, but today only the most out-of-touch person could claim as much.
Over the weekend, 13-year-old actress Rowan Blanchard, star of Disney’s Girl Meets World, wrote a thoughtful and smart essay (posted to Instagram) on the importance of intersectional feminism – feminism that takes into account how oppression impacts different people depending on their identity. She wrote:
The way a black woman experiences sexism and inequality is different from the way a white woman experiences sexism and inequality. Likewise with transwomen and Hispanic women. While white women are making 78 cents to the dollar, Native American women are making 65 cents, black women are making 64 cents, and Hispanic women are making 54 cents.
Blanchard also cited academic Kimberlé Crenshaw, discussed transphobia and police violence against women of color. In other words, she rocked it. And the world noticed, the mediajubilant that such a young woman could articulate such nuanced feminist ideas. But while Blanchard is clearly incredibly sharp and knowledgeable, she’s not an outlier.
A new generation of young feminists who came of age online are tremendously more informed than their internet-less predecessors. Whereas women my age and older were lucky to hear nominal mention of the feminist movement during women’s history month at school – the likes of Susan B Anthony and Gloria Steinem – all young women and girls today need to do is log on to Tumblr or do a Google search and all of feminism is at their fingertips: blogs and Twitter accounts, memes and YouTube channels. Within moments, young people can watch a talk between bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry or take part in an online protest.
And while the media continues to ask female celebrities of all ages if they identify as feminists as some sort of zeitgeisty litmus test, young people like Blanchard are using their fame to push the conversation forward rather than let someone else control the narrative.
Black women on magazine covers in September showcase our greatness | Morgan Jerkins
Take Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg, who published a video on cultural appropriation that went viral and has pushed back against racist stereotypes. Stenberg, 16, told Dazed that “social justice has always been incredibly important to me but it wasn’t until recently that I realized I could use my platform to start conversations.” Stenberg also told fellow young feminist Tavi Gevinson, founder of Rookie, that it was reading the online magazine that, in part, sparked her interest in feminism.
We should continue to applaud young and teenage feminists who are speaking out about complicated and serious issues. But let’s not not treat them as anomalies. They’re representative of younger people – both men and women – who care about social and political justice. They’re younger than we are, they’re smarter than we were, and they’re certainly more informed. So lets leave the head-pats at home, and fetch our own coffee, and instead focus on what we can learn from what will certainly be the most brilliant feminist generation.