Speech isn't violence; it's how we avoid it
Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.
Remember this saying? If you were born in or before the 1980s, you likely do. Bullying has always been something young people have to contend with, and growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s we were taught to stand up for ourselves. We were taught to ignore the words of bullies. We were taught that there were no words that could hurt us. Physical assault called for self-defense, but as annoying and painful as being verbally harassed was, the prevailing wisdom at the time was to either stand up to the bully, or simply learn to walk away.
However, kids are now being taught something different. A look from a stranger, a sign advertising a political candidate, the traditional definition of a woman, a Make America Great Again hat—all are considered forms of violence to a certain group of young people.
But what happens when we teach people that encountering words they don't like, ideas they disagree with, and beliefs they do not hold is equal to physical harm?
We are unfortunately finding out now, and it's not good.
College campuses have begun posting warning signs so students will be aware they might encounter others who have different belief sets. "Cry closets" are set up where students can retreat after seeing or hearing from someone who has an alternative perspective. But what is the value of shielding young people from ideas they may think they disagree with? How will they grow if they are not able to open their mind to new ideas and different types of people? How can they call themselves tolerant and kind when they are actually closed-minded and often cruel in response to divergent viewpoints?
It has become even more commonplace to see students on college campuses labeling even commonly held beliefs as potentially dangerous. Many conclude that the concept of diversity does not include diversity of thought. So alternative perspectives to the current liberal narrative are increasingly rare on college campuses. Teachers and scientists will justify this thought process. They say hearing ideas you don’t agree with can cause you to feel anxious, worried, or angry, which can increase blood pressure and stress, leading to potential suicidal ideation or a greater risk of heart attack or stroke. As a result of this, they justify calling speech violence.
But the purpose of speech is as an alternative to violence. Open discourse is a sign of progress. What we’re doing now is the opposite.
Today’s youth must learn to persevere. They will have to eventually learn how to work with someone they do not like, or whose ideas they strongly disagree with. At some point they will have to learn to show civility and common decency toward a Trump supporter, or someone who does not believe trans women are women. How will they handle this? Resorting to insults or refusing to serve, work, or associate with people they have smeared as terrible is only going to get them so far. As the political climate changes—which it inevitably does—they may eventually find themselves on the other side of things, outside the popular narrative, without the skills to cope with no longer being able to silence voices or ideas they dislike.
There are so many downsides to viewing speech and diversity of thought as violence. Not only does having such a narrow-minded perspective limit potential life experiences, it also inevitably leads to anxiety—the same anxiety that the supposedly violent words are said to bring—stress, and depression. Imagine walking through life trying to avoid people and ideas you find repugnant. Not only is it impossible, but it breeds hatred, resentment, anger, and ultimately, real violence.
As a society, we generally believe violence is only justified in response to violence. If someone is physically attacking someone else, it's viewed as permissible for violence to be used in self-defense. When one believes that words are violence, however, common sense would dictate that violence—even physical violence—can then be returned. How long until we see a trial where the perpetrator attempts to use self-defense as reason for assault because he was offended? It's unlikely the law as it stands will view this as a legitimate argument, but increasingly even law students are becoming anti-free speech. Many of our future lawyers and judges themselves now believe words can be violence, and it’s possible that the law may eventually change to suit them.
One of the most important questions I rarely hear asked is, how can one side be so sure they are on the “right side of history” when they refuse to listen to or engage with the other side? What I might consider hate speech, you may consider the truth, and vice versa. As a Catholic, I hold a specific set of religious values. I know of many people who abhor Catholicism, and yet, despite their strong aversion to my faith, I harbor no ill will towards them. I am friends with some of them. Why would their personal thoughts on my faith impact my own beliefs? If my beliefs are sincerely held, they shouldn’t be threatened by disagreement.
It is vital that young people understand that there is a huge difference between actual, physical harm and diversity of thought. The latter is not just acceptable, but vital to the health of a civil society. The former is precisely the opposite. When we confuse the two, we create chaos.
We need to teach our youth how to deal with words, ideas, and concepts they don’t agree with, like my generation and so many generations before me have been taught. Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me. The answer to speech we do not like is not to ban it or label it as violence; it is to tolerate it, engage with it, or to walk away from it. The world outside of our personal bubbles will not bend to our whims, and young people need to learn how to accept this fact. They are the ones set to lead humanity into the future—but if our future depends on those who cannot tolerate the existence of others, I worry what that future will bring.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism or its employees.
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