In March of 2017, Middlebury College in Vermont was rocked by protests over the right of Charles Murray (the controversial author of “The Bell Curve”) to speak at the college. Fire alarms were pulled, Murray was shouted down and ultimately the faculty member interviewing Murray, Allison Stanger, received a concussion after someone grabbed her hair and twisted her neck. After the protests, the students of Middlebury set in stone a new discourse on the nature of free speech, releasing a statement quoting Toni Morrison: “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge… Sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.”
This concept, language as a tool of violence, is often beaten about by both sides of the free speech debate, but never defined in a way that both sides can recognize. The “free speech” side of the dichotomy, I think best described by the University of Chicago’s 2016 welcoming letter, often takes a hopelessly uncreative stance on the problem, resorting to high-handed definition in order to deny the nature of the problem. The university’s claim in a later report that: “it is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive” shows that they have defined violence in a particular, conservative way, and assumed their right to do so. To them, anything below a physical attack becomes downgraded to a lesser harm — unwelcome, disagreeable, offensive.
But this language of physical harm to the individual has also been mirrored by many writers on the other side of the debate. A common piece of evidence used to assert that speech is violence holds that the neurological effect of hateful speech causes physical harm to the individual, and so it should be regulated like physical violence.
The problem with both sides’ assumptions are that they reduce violence to an individual issue, ignoring the fact that violence can also manifest on the level of the community. This way of looking at violence — what philosopher Michel Foucault called epistemological violence— frames the ideas of so many safe space advocates, and yet it is sorely missing from the wider conversation. It must be addressed directly in order to fully understand the claim that speech can sometimes be violence. To the post-structuralist, epistemological violence begins with the assertion that some kinds of knowledge are inherently better than others. This kind of thinking, usually means believing that Western knowledge and values are a superior or aspirational standard. This then leads to the entrenchment of current power structures and the devaluation of other cultures. While throughout this process no single person has been “harmed,” the vitality and legitimacy of the community “othered” by epistemological violence falters and becomes weaker. This in turn leads to real harm to the people living in those communities.
On college campuses, this epistemological violence takes the form of racist hate-notes, scrawled swastikas on dorm rooms and epithets hurled at marginalized students. It also takes the form of the homophobic speaker invited “to hear the other side out,” or a professor entertaining a racist claim just “out of speculation.” The sum of these attacks makes students feel out of place, shunned and ostracized. This in turn keeps them, as a community as well as individuals, permanently on edge at college campuses. But there is a problem with this line of thought when you attempt to apply it in the real world. That is, if you accept that certain kinds of speech can be an act of violence on the community as a whole, you invite the government to monopolize its use. This process was described by the political theorist Max Weber, who claimed that the state naturally seeks, and needs, a monopoly on the use of violence, or a Gewaltmonopol, in order to perpetuate itself. This monopoly of violence is already explicit when it comes to the use of physical force: laws regulate literally every form of physical violence in the United States, and everyone is held accountable for breaching those laws. What would this monopoly look like were it to be applied to epistemological violence? The possibilities seem endless because epistemological violence is defined by nature as an attack on a minority by a dominant power structure. When that dominant power structure inherits this discourse, it becomes not all too far-fetched that it will be deployed against those communities that safe space advocates seek to protect. Trump’s feud with the NFL seems to be what epistemological violence rhetoric looks like when deployed (albeit badly) by the government, as he attempted to justify destroying players’ careers by equating a protest of systemic racism with an existential attack on the United States as a whole because of the disrespect to the anthem and flag.
This leaves the question: how are we supposed to respond to epistemological violence? There is no easy fix, because using bans, “no-platforming” or physical force against racist or sexist scholars or public figures does not lead to the protection of minority communities, but rather invites regulation of their rights as well. Instead, the way forward might mean doubling down on the rights of everyone to speak. It means accepting that freedom of speech equates to, as Christopher Hitchens puts it, “the freedom to hate,” and it also means accepting that this freedom gives us an everyday ability, right and responsibility to challenge hateful thinking. The students of Middlebury claim that hateful speech sets the limits of their own knowledge, but the reality is that the only limit on their ability to seek change and enlightenment is their own resolve to fight the status quo. Nobody’s speech can change that.