The implication of this expansive use of the word “violence” is that “we” are justified in punching and pepper-spraying “them,” even if all they did was say words. We’re just defending ourselves against their “violence.” But if this way of thinking leads to actual violence, and if that violence triggers counter-violence from the other side (as happened a few weeks later at Berkeley), then where does it end? In the country’s polarized democracy, telling young people that “words are violence” may in fact lead to a rise in real, physical violence.
Free speech, properly understood, is not violence. It is a cure for violence.
In his 1993 book Kindly Inquisitors, the author Jonathan Rauch explains that freedom of speech is part of a system he calls “Liberal Science”—an intellectual system that arose with the Enlightenment and made the movement so successful. The rules of Liberal Science include: No argument is ever truly over, anyone can participate in the debate, and no one gets to claim special authority to end a question once and for all. Central to this idea is the role of evidence, debate, discussion, and persuasion. Rauch contrasts Liberal Science with the system that dominated before it—the “Fundamentalist” system—in which kings, priests, oligarchs, and others with power decide what is true, and then get to enforce orthodoxy using violence.
Liberal Science led to the radical social invention of a strong distinction between words and actions, and though some on campus question that distinction today, it has been one of the most valuable inventions in the service of peace, progress, and innovation that human civilization ever came up with. Freedom of speech is the eternally radical idea that individuals will try to settle their differences through debate and discussion, through evidence and attempts at persuasion, rather than through the coercive power of administrative authorities—or violence.
To be clear, when we refer to “free speech,” we are not talking about things like threats, intimidation, and incitement. The First Amendment provides categorical exceptions for those because such words are linked to actual physical violence. The First Amendment also excludes harassment—when words are used in a directed pattern of discriminatory behavior.
But the extraordinary body of legal reasoning that has developed around the First Amendment also recognizes that universities are different from other settings. In a 2010 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit—Rodriguez v. Maricopa County Community College District—Chief Judge Alex Kozinski noted “...the urge to censor is greatest where debate is most disquieting and orthodoxy most entrenched…” He then explained the special nature of universities, using terms that illustrate Rauch’s Liberal Science:
The right to provoke, offend, and shock lies at the core of the First Amendment. This is particularly so on college campuses. Intellectual advancement has traditionally progressed through discord and dissent, as a diversity of views ensures that ideas survive because they are correct, not because they are popular. Colleges and universities—sheltered from the currents of popular opinion by tradition, geography, tenure and monetary endowments—have historically fostered that exchange. But that role in our society will not survive if certain points of view may be declared beyond the pale.
In sum, it was a radical enlightenment idea to tolerate the existence of dissenters, and an even more radical idea to actually engage with them. Universities are—or should be—the preeminent centers of Liberal Science. They have a duty to foster an intellectual climate that separates true ideas from popular but fallacious ones.
The conflation of words with violence is not a new or progressive idea invented on college campuses in the last two years. It is an ancient and regressive idea. Americans should all be troubled that it is becoming popular again—especially on college campuses, where it least belongs.