Crowds of students gathered at the University of California-Berkeley in September armed with protest signs and chanting, “Speech is violence! We will not be silent!” Who were these students so passionately protesting against? Surely it would have to be someone as vile as neo-Nazi Richard Spencer or at least as controversial as alt-right darling Milo Yiannopoulos.
Who decides what speech constitutes violence?
In reality, it was conservative commentator Ben Shapiro – a far cry from a literal neo-Nazi – who inspired protesters to gather on campus with a rallying cry that equates speech with violence. That sentiment is a dangerous one and it is quickly gaining popularity.
When You Call Speech Violence
The problem with conflating “hate” speech with violence is manifold. For one, hate speech is subjective. Who decides what speech constitutes violence? If the answer is the government, then civil liberties will be in immediate danger, as it stands to reason that the government will crackdown on any speech is deems violent or dangerous. Consider how the government responded to the civil rights movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
“If utterances of speech are truly violence, then government can ban them as criminal conduct, just as we prohibit other forms of private violence,” Josh Craddock, the editor-in-chief of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy argued in an August op-ed for the National Review.
Another problem with equating words with violence is that it inspires physical violence to counteract it. Force is often justified when the threat of physical harm is imminent, so it stands to reason that force can be used to prevent hateful speech in a world where violence and speech are one and the same.
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