Mises Wire

Redefining Violence: The Problem With PC Speech Codes

Last fall, the Washington Post reported on how a “chilling study” showed that college students are “hostile...toward free speech.” 

The research, author Catherine Rampell noted, showed that large numbers of students — sometimes constituting even a majority — support “snuffing out upsetting speech.” Many also support the use of violence in order to do so. 

Many defenders of free speech in response have framed this unfortunate reality as the result of an insufficient lack of reverence for “free speech,” or for tolerance in general. 

But this approach somewhat misses the point. If asked directly if tolerance and freedom of speech are good things, these same students who oppose “upsetting speech” or “hate speech” as they often call it, would surely answer in the affirmative. 

If Speech Is a Form of Violence, It is Legitimate for the State to Limit It

Of course tolerance and free speech are good things” the student would no doubt say, “but you don’t have freedom to inflict violence on others.” 

When viewed from their vantage point, this claim is analogous to the old political proverb that states ”my right to swing my fists ends where your nose begins.” 

In other words, behavior must be limited when it threatens the property of others. 

Now, to the casual observer not up-to-date on current ideological orthodoxy, he might not see any connection between these two claims. How can speech be equated to swinging fists about? Words are not like fists. 

What this casual observer has missed however is that current opponents of so-called hate speech have redefined violent behavior to include upsetting words spoken by others. 

This is how advocates of “snuffing out” certain types of speech can reconcile their position with stated support for “freedom” and “free speech.”

By opposing certain types of speech, one is not opposing basic freedoms, but is opposing actual violence. 

And this illustrates the importance of the “speech is violence” narrative which is at the very core of the current controversies over so-called political correctness, and which even many leftists are uncomfortable defending

However, critics of oddball theories from university humanities professors often focus too much on the theories themselves. Claims that there are dozens of genders or that “whiteness” is a social disease are problematic, to be sure. But America has certainly seen its share of aggressive ideologies before.

The difference now, however, is that proponents of these ideologies feel sufficiently emboldened so as to declare even mere opposition to these theories to be a form a violence. And this is an extremely important distinction. If speech can be shown to be violence, then it becomes morally legitimate to call for action by the state to limit or abolish that speech.

After all, in the Western mind, the restraint of violence has long been one of the few near-universally-accepted purposes of the state. For Augustine of Hippo, who took a cynical and suspicious view of the state, the state could at least do some good by retraining violence and punishing malefactors. Centuries later, even most libertarian minded Americans accept that one of the few proper functions of the state is to prevent and punish violations of property rights. 

Thus, if merely saying things can be classified as a violation of a person’s body or property, this is a major victory for those seeking to regulate speech itself. 

And the left has been hard at work attempting to establish this connection. Last year, psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett, a respected researcher at Northeaster University attempted in The New York Times to show that speech expressing unpleasant ideas by others can causes chronic stress in the hearer, and thus can lead to physical damage in the body. If speech can cause physiological damage, ought it not be considered a form of aggression? 

Similarly, some journalists have claimed they are now suffering from a form of post traumatic stress disorder after being in the presence of members of the so-called alt-right, and after only listening to their jokes, speeches, and exchanges. 

This contention that speech literally causes physical harm to the body is a somewhat new innovation, but it is only a small step from a more time-honored strategy: that of claiming that “hate speech” creates the conditions which lead to violence. This is held even in cases where no threat to safety is implied, and in which there is no call for action against the “abused” parties in question.

In this view, merely expressing disapproval of certain groups or behaviors constitutes “hate speech” because disapproval of certain groups or their actions leads to violence against them. Or so it is believed.

According to this theory, making the claim that, say, Mexican-Americans are lazier than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts paves the way for violence against Mexican-Americans. Thus, such speech needs to be restrained. 

This position has been especially notable outside the United States — at least in recent years. In the United Kingdom, for example, a street preacher was arrested for reading some verses of the bible to a gay teen who had asked the preacher’s opinion on the matter. 

In Canada, in the case of Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission v Whatcott, the Canadian Supreme Court affirmed the province’s prosecution of a man who distributed flyers condemning homosexuality. Significantly, the flyers did not advocate for violence against persons, but portrayed certain people as “inferior” and “untrustworthy.”  In other words, the Court’s decisions concluded that saying rude things is a prosecutable crime in Canada. 

Pro-Slavery Opposition to Free Speech in America

In the past, this latter strategy has been employed in the United States as well. In the nineteenth century, abolitionist rhetoric was opposed and condemned in many areas on the grounds that merely opposing the institution of slavery invited insurrection and violence — and thus ought to be banned. 

The most notorious case of this, perhaps, is the so-called “mails controversy” in which pro-slavery activists pressured the US postal service to confiscate anti-slavery tracts mailed from the North.

Historian Russell L. Riley describes the situation1 :

The abolitionist strategy for affecting a change in southern public opinion through a free press - that is, by mailing publications from the North - was well into implementation by the mid-1830s. This became an especially prominent part of their strategy in 1835, when the total number of publications produced by the American Anti-Slavery Society skyrocketed in one year from 122,000 to over 1 million copies. Southern newspapers were susequently filled with stories of an invasion of incendiary matter. 

Anti-slavery activists in the North had sent thousands of publications to South Carolina’s prominent citizens. The reaction was not especially blithe, to say the least. 

As Riley notes, before the materials could be delivered, “a mob of 3,000 Charlestonians” broke into the post office and burned the “offending materials.” 

As the local postmaster at the time, Alfred Huger wrote, “this community is too Sensitive [sic]” to allow the expression of such opinions.

In other words, the pro-slavery population of Charleston needed a “safe space,” and it pursued that safe space by pressing for legislation — both local and federal —  allowing local postmasters to censor the mails as they saw fit. 

RELATED: “What Libertarians Should Learn From the Abolitionists“ by Murray Rothbard

Blocking abolitionist opinions was not merely a matter of annoyance in the minds of pro-slavery advocates, however. The underlying feeling at work here was that any agitation for emancipation — including emancipation through peaceful means — was more or less equivalent to advocating for slave uprisings, and the total destruction of Southern civilization. In other words, advocating for emancipation was seen as essentially equivalent to advocating violence.2  

The heights to which emotion on this matter could reach can be seen in the words of President Andrew Jackson himself who became involved in the mails controversy. Writing to the Postmaster General, Jackson complained:

I have read with sorrow and regret that such men live in our happy country — I might have said monsters — as to be guilty of the attempt to stir up amongst the South the horrors of a servile war — Could they be reached, they ought to be made to atone for this wicked attempt, with their lives.

Riley notes that “[to] Jackson, what the abolitionists took as an exercise of First Amendment rights amounted to a capital offense.” 

Rarely, though, were abolitionist tracts such as these involved in calls for uprisings and insurrections. The abolitionist movement, in fact, was often closely connected to Quakerism and pacifism, and — especially in the 1830s — could be not portrayed as generally inciting violence. 

Indeed, in the 1830s, anti-slavery pockets existed in numerous Southern states, and many anti-slavery activists hoped these pockets might grow and spread, bringing about a state-by-state renunciation of slavery.3  In the upper South, and especially in Appalachia where the plantation economy was unimportant, anti-slavery movement thrived in some areas, sustained largely by communities of Quakers in both Tennessee and North Carolina.

Northern Kentucky was also home to notable anti-slavery advocates, including William S. Bailey who was subjected to numerous cases of boycotts, harassment, vandalism, and threats to his personal safety. Employing the usual tactics of pro-slavery activists, Bailey was also accused of supporting violence against slaveowners and their families, and he was later accused to supporting John Brown — a charge Bailey denied. 

Fear of anti-slavery ideas became so heated in fact, that no amount of hyperbole was apparently too over-the-top. By 1850, slavery apologist James Henley Thornwell would write:

The parties in this conflict are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders—they are atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, jacobins, on the one side, and the friends of order and regulated freedom on the other. In one word, the world is the battle ground—Christianity and Atheism the combatants; and the progress of humanity the stake.

This conflating the pro-slavery cause with civilization itself would later be immortalized in the Mississippi declaration of secession which stated that ”a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.” 

In Thornwell’s comments, it’s not difficult to see tactics reminiscent of what we see today from the more virulent advocates of political correctness. We might adjust Thornwell’s words to read: 

The parties in this conflict are not merely conservatives [or perhaps, “Trump supporters”] and progressives — they are fascists, racists, Nazis, hate-mongers, and religious zealots on the one side, and the friends of equality and diversity on the other. In one word, the world is the battle ground—tolerance and hate the combatants; and the progress of humanity the stake.

Thus we find ourselves with a serviceable summary of the current movement against speech, which in the PC view, has become a form of violence. 

Now, some critics of my drawing an equivalence here might suggests that the paranoia of the pro-slavery activists was justified. After all, didn’t the North eventually invade the South?

This would be a good argument if not for the fact that the war was not fought for the purposes of ending slavery — as defenders of the Southern Confederacy themselves often like to point out. 

It was not abolitionist sentiment that lead to military action action against the South, but “unionism” and a anti-Southern reaction in the wake of Lincoln’s successful gambit to goad the South into attacking Fort Sumter. 

Prior to the attack on Sumter, a great many northerners had been sympathetic to southern grievances and to secession itself. 

It is true that some abolitionists cynically latched on to the war effort because it served their purposes. To his shame, William Lloyd Garrison abandoned decades of apparently principled devotion to disunion and pacifism when it looked like he might get what he wanted through a war. But, it would be anachronistic and absurd to blame the war on 1830s Quakers who advocated for peaceful abolition — and who were facing a federal government headed by Jackson, a pro-slavery president. Moreover, it was localized insurrection, not invasion from the North, that the pro-slavery advocates feared. As was true right up until the Southern states seceded, the slave-state voting bloc in Congress held a solid veto on any attempt to pass nationwide emancipation — which would have required a super-majority. 

“Hate Speech” as Crypto-Violence

The anti-abolitionist paranoia expressed in the 1830s is echoed today in the “speech is violence” position in which any opinion that expressed opposition to the current left wing orthodoxy is a form of cloaked support for violence against innocents. 

In this view, any opposition to transgender bathrooms is nearly as bad as support for hangings of sexual eccentrics. Any opposition to mass immigration is only one small step from advocating for concentration camps for non-whites. 

Whether or not this strategy will ultimately succeed will depend on the degree to which speech is accepted as a form of violence. Historically, when viewed properly, a “right” — in the United States, at least — has been limited to freedom from physical violence and coercion. This has included assault, kidnapping, false imprisonment, trespassing, theft, and other identifiable physical manifestations of violence. 

If this definition of “violence” is expanded, however, to include concepts such as hurt feelings, stress levels, or possible imagined violence at some point in the future allegedly resulting from certain opinions, then that would be revolutionary indeed. And disastrous for human freedom. 

  • 1See Russel L. Riley, The Presidency and the Politics of Racial Inequality. Columbia University Press. 1999.
  • 2In terms of the non-violence of the abolitionists, it’s worth noting that we’re talking about an 1830s incident in this case. In the Journal of Libertarian Studies, in their article “Ambivalence, Ambiguity, and Contradiction: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Nonviolence” Curry and Goodheart write: ”it is clear that the principles of nonviolence were still the dominant abolitionist credo in the 1830’s and early 1840’s. But between the Mexican War of 1846-1848 and the secession of the South in the winter of 1860-1861, pacifism declined in importance, and the call for a holy war against the evil of slavery increased in some abolitionist circles.” (see: The Journal of Libertarian Studies Vol VI. Nos. 3-4 Summer/Fall 1982; https://mises.org/library/ambivalence-ambiguity-and-contradiction-garrisonian-abolitionists-and-nonviolence) 
  • 3Pro-slavery sentiment accelerated after 1830, but anti-slavery sentiment was so prevalent in some areas of the South that Tennessee abolitionist John Rankin declared “it was safer to make an anti-slavery speech in the South than it became during the thirties to make the same speech in the North.” See: “The Pioneer Anti-Slavery Press” byAsa Earl Martin in The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Mar., 1916), pp. 509-528 
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