Speech is not violence

February 20, 2018 • 9:00 am

You may have heard that Ryan Spector, a Dartmouth student, got into big trouble for writing an op-ed in his college paper (The Dartmouth) questioning why 15 of the 19 directors of the student program “The Trips” (it runs summer excursions for incoming first-years) were female.  Claiming that this unbalanced sex ratio reflected an exercise in diversity gone wild, Spector got the response that selection was based purely on merit. He didn’t buy it, and concluded:

No matter how many men Trips excludes from directorate, the Class of 2022 will still be roughly 50 percent male. As they do each year, male members of the class will look for Trips role models who share their gender identity, just as any person might. But they will find fewer of them, because Trips is apparently no longer for trippees. It is for ideology, no matter how cruel the implications.

On a campus like Dartmouth (or pretty much any campus that isn’t religious), that’s stepping into a minefield, even if the selection was deliberately biased towards women. The claim that men needs “role models who share their gender identity” would be particularly inflammatory.  And opprobrium Spector got—in spades! As the conservative Dartmouth Review reported, noting that Spector’s piece was “inflammatory” and written “out of bitterness”

One day after the op-ed was posted, Link Up, a women’s student group, sent out a campus-wide email with the heading, “Statement in Solidarity”. The email defended Pierson and Rodriguez-Caspeta [the directors of Trips], and claimed that Spector’s article “attacks marginalized identities.” The email also celebrated the high percentage of female students in the new directorate as “correcting [for] years of underrepresentation and marginalization”.

. . . Throughout the weekend and into the next week, over 30 campus organizations followed their lead and sent out their own letters of “solidarity” with the Trips director and assistant director, further denouncing Spector’s op-ed as an “attack” on women and women of color. [JAC: There’s no mention of people of color in Spector’s article.] The wash of emails came from a wide range of student groups, including the Committee on Sexual Assault, several a capella groups, senior societies, sororities, one fraternity, and a variety of other minority and women’s groups. The emails varied in the severity of their accusations, but the allegations against Spector as a violent perpetrator of racism and sexism were common throughout.

. . . On Monday, a campus email from the Stonefence Review, a Dartmouth literary magazine, took a more personal turn. The letter first criticized Spector and called for The Dartmouth to rescind the op-ed, but then went on to publicly name the fraternity of which Spector is a member, demanding that the fraternity itself apologize for the “act of violence” that Spector committed. In bold font, the letter then calls on the fraternity to use their “place of power” with respect to Spector’s social life to “take a stand,” implying that the fraternity should take some sort of disciplinary action against him.

They conclude, and I agree, that this kind of vicious, personal, and bullying response was uncalled for. I wouldn’t have written what Spector did, but the kind of response he got reflects poorly on the offended.

FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), adds a bit more information and rebuts the oft-heard but erroneous claim that offensive speech is equivalent to physical violence:

As stated by one of Spector’s detractors when calling on Spector’s fraternity to condemn his op-ed: “[W]e call upon Alpha Chi Alpha to acknowledge that their own words do not recognize that their brother has committed an act of violence.”

Students are free to rebuke or ignore writing they find distasteful, and even call for social sanctions on the offending author. However, classifying political speech as literal violence has drastic consequences for those seeking to speak out on campus. Besides trivializing actual violence, conflating controversial opinions with physical harm justifies censorship and perhaps actual physical violence against the speaker in the name of supposed “self-defense” by aggrieved parties. It also sends the perverse message that college students are too weak to confront divergent ideas and must instead shield themselves from perceived “violent” viewpoints.

It’s time that we get this clear: speech, even “hate speech” is nothing like physical violence. The latter wounds bodies and is therefore illegal; the former may, at best, cause offense, and is Constitutionally legal. Further Spector may have had a point: perhaps there was selection bias towards females on that committee. If that was the case, then one needs to debate whether such a reverse gender bias is acceptable given years of bias against women. That’s the kind of discussion that, regardless of the outcome, moves society forward. Responding with names, hatred, and doxxing does not answer Spector’s claim, even if it was inflammatory.

Further, the “normalization” (I don’t like that word) of “hate speech” as “violence” is itself a recipe for real, physical violence. If you consider the sentiments of white supremacists—or the tamer words of Spector—as “violence”, you might be tempted to answer them with real violence, causing a brawl that hurts bodies and property. That, in fact, is exactly what happened at UC Berkeley when Milo Yiannopoulos spoke: Antifa and their minions went wild, doing thousands of dollars of damage to Berkeley storefronts. Yiannopoulos wasn’t silenced, except for the moment (he’s been in disgrace for other things he said).

If a criticism of biased sex ratios, and the implication of “reverse discrimination,” constitutes violence, then almost anything can be seen that way, launching not just the outpouring of hatred that Spector received (note that I don’t call that “violence”), and maybe even pitched battles—the kind of battle that Evergreen State students were seeking when they roamed the campus with baseball bats after the Bret Weinstein affair.

As FIRE concludes, “Free speech, properly understood, is not violence. It is a cure for violence.”

h/t; Grania

46 thoughts on “Speech is not violence

  1. If 15 out of 19 leaders selected were women, how long can one maintain that women are being “marginalised”?

    Or is the idea that certain groups are “marginalised” an axiom of ideological faith that isn’t amenable to evidence?

  2. Free speech is what is supposed to be the substitute for violence and the use of raw power in the public arena. It may not be perfect, but it often allows reason to prevail over hate and viciousness.

    Calling the exercise of free speech itself “violence” deliberately obscures the lines in order to set the stage for raw power to be exercised against dissent.

    Glen Davidson

  3. As they do each year, male members of the class will look for Trips role models who share their gender identity, just as any person might.

    Because wealthy white males attending a place like Dartmouth lack for role models that can encourage them to be successful in life.
    [eye roll]

    When did liberal civil rights become a game of tit for tat? My belly may be full with all the high quality food my fat wallet could buy, but you dare get one more fishstick from the cafeteria than me, I’m going to demand my extra fishstick too.

    1. What makes you think all the white males who attend Dartmouth are wealthy? What makes you think women and other oppressed masses who attend Dartmouth are not? Is it wealth or whiteness you have a problem with or is it only because he’s male?

      Lastly, please explain why it is that wealthy white males do not deserve to be treated like other people.

      1. What makes you think all the white males who attend Dartmouth are wealthy?

        The $50K/year tuition, for a start. Sure there will be exceptions (for scholarship earners, and students who take out big loans). But if I go looking for average family income for Dartmouth students, do you really want to bet me it will be at or below the US average household income of $59k/year?

        Lastly, please explain why it is that wealthy white males do not deserve to be treated like other people.

        This gets back to my fishstick example. Being treated equally doesn’t require parity in every single instant. White males have a huge number of successful accomplished role models to draw from. More than other groups. The fact that TRIP leaders at Dartmouth consist of more women than men isn’t going to cause a massive, psychologically impactful deficit in the role models available to male Dartmouth students. We are being treated equally. We’re treated better than equally. If we don’t get an extra fishstick every time someone else gets an extra fishstick, well most of us don’t need it for health purposes the way some other folk do, either.

        [Also I failed to address the main point of the post in my original message. In brief: I agree with PCC and others that the student’s speech is not violence and that this sort of discussion is welcome. I may think Specter is being melodramatic and whiny, but I fully support his right to question Dartmouth’s selection process and the results.]

        1. You did fail to address the main point and that would have made the difference. You were making the same “arguments” as those at Dartmouth attacking the rich white male kid and that is just so tiresome. But your amended post brings it all together.

    2. Stop with the fishstick analogy already, willya? Or at least give up a trigger warning. I mean, I was never molested by a priest or anything, but I did have to eat those Birdseye abominations ever Friday during my youth, and that was trauma enough. 🙂

  4. Advocating the idea that a clear imbalance [in this case 15 out of 19] in one direction is justifiably “correcting [for] years of underrepresentation and marginalization” in other direction means that you are not really in favor of balance. You don’t want to put an end to ‘oppression’. You just want your own group (may I say tribe?) to be the one doing the oppression or, at the very least, you don’t give a damn who suffers as long as it is not your tribe.
    As such, that attitude appears to be one stemming from losers who do not want to change or destroy an unfair game: they just want to win at this very game. I don’t respect that.

    1. Agreed. It’s not those particularly women who suffered in any previous “years of underrepresentation and marginalization”.

      The idea that one can correct a harm to some women by benefiting some other women is bizarre.

      Surely everyone has the right to equal treatment *as* *individuals*?

      1. It’s known as ‘compensating for past inequalities’. Otherwise spelled ‘r-e-v-e-n-g-e’. 😉


    2. Right now I have a different view. I don’t mind that the group was unbalanced toward females on this occassion as a symbolic redressing of years of imbalance in the other direction. My issue is that they should have explained it (and not attack someone who objects to it, of course). Much like I don’t mind the use of affirmative action favoring of minorities as one criteria in selecting college applicants.
      I agree that the pendulum needs to swing to the middle, but a temporary swing the other way is not a big deal.

      1. I am both pleased and a bit surprised that people are agreeing with me. Doesn’t happen much at home. 😊

  5. So, even though 50% of the incoming Dartmouth class are men, women hold 15 of 19 directorships in “The Trips” program, reflecting an exercise in diversity gone wild?

    I feel Mr. Spectors’s fury; those are the exact same numbers, if I’m not mistaken, of the Republican-to-Democrat ratio in the Pennsylvania congressional delegation, even though 50% of Pennsylvania voters cast their ballots for Democrats in the 2016 election. The “wssh of emails” defending The Trips program reminds me of Republican brief defending this gerrymandering filed in the PA supreme court.

    There’s something happening here; what it is ain’t exactly clear. (But me, cynic that I am, I suspect some hardball politics underlies both situations.) Come on Trippers be fair; Dartmouth boys deserve some social justice, too!

    1. And congratulations to the Pennsylvania supreme court on the new map. This will help to insure a more fair election this year and get that majority necessary to impeach the idiot for dereliction of duty.

  6. “correcting [for] years of underrepresentation and marginalization”.

    This is an excellent example of the idea of “Cosmic Justice”, as if you can fix the damage done in the past by inflicting/disregarding harm to the “other guys” in the present. This is a very dangerous idea.

    1. By the way, I’m agnostic as to whether any discrimination actually occurred in this instance. However, the response to the article is depressing and predictable.

    2. I don’t think that’s the logic. I think it’s more: for women and minorities to get the equal opportunity promised by our government, they need more role models and so on in our current society, due to the presence of racism and sexism that work to limit and stifle that opportunity in ways others don’t experience. Yes true, in a nonracist and nonsexist society they wouldn’t need more role models than white men; equal opportunity would dictate equal support. But we don’t live in that society yet.

      So not so much an attempt at cosmic justice. More a recognition that ongoing background negative factors affecting some folk may require the occasional foreground positive factor to counteract. Even if that means not everyone gets the same amount of foreground spotlight.

      1. There are flesh-and-blood humans in the chess game you are playing, not wooden figures.

        “Equal opportunity” means lack of government barriers. It doesn’t mean you are entitled to preferential treatment because of arbitrary victimhood status and arbitrary historical revanchism.

        The Pandora’s Box you are more than willing to open contains an infinite number of personal and group grievances that is not going to stop unless the Box is closed.

        There is one game that all humans on the planet are more than competent and willing to play than anything else and that is playing the victim.

  7. It’s also interesting to consider how this letter would have been received if the gender roles were reversed – i.e., if 15 of 19 were men, and the author a woman.

    This incident shows how foolish it is to look for equality of outcome rather than of opportunity.

  8. A thought experiment for the “Speech is Violence!” crowd:

    You’re strapped to a chair in a police interrogation cell. I’m the officer in charge and I have 5 minutes to spend with you. I can spend those 5 minutes either:

    1) Calling you every rude, insulting or offensive name I can think of, including any derogatory terms appropriate to your gender/ethnicity/religion etc.,


    2) Pulling your fingernails out with pliers.

    If speech = violence, then there’s nothing to choose between the two, but I suspect there would not be a 50:50 split in the chosen option.

      1. I’m sure neurologists could show us exactly how nonviolent negative experiences can induce temporary or even permanent changes in the brain. I think “speech produces no damage at all!” is not the right reply. The right reply is, IMO, that small harms caused by social friction between individuals are part of the price we pay for living in a society.

        You want to live with other people, you’re occasionally going to get bumped. That’s the way it goes. The law will stop the big intentional bumps, or at least hold the bumper responsible, but the small incidental stuff…lump it.

        1. Dealing with opinions you don’t like or that are “offensive” has never be demonstrated to produce any lasting harm.

    1. The analogy fails. I could say the choice is that I and all my friends subject you to continuous verbal abuse and bullying for the next year or I slap you in the face once.

      The former is not physical violence, the latter is. Speech can be very damaging. Teenagers have been known to commit suicide following extended harassment campaigns by their peers on social media. Just because it isn’t physical violence doesn’t mean it is OK.

      Having said that, in this particular instance, it’s total crap. The guy wrote an op-ed that might reasonably be disagreed with and was subjected to harassment as a result. Yet it is he who is being accused of “violence”.

      1. Harassment is not the same thing as reading an article you don’t like or listening to someone with opinions that are not identical to your own. The attempt by certain groups in our culture to conflate the two is extraordinarily disingenuous and dangerous. The whole “speech is violence” discourse has precisely this aim, every reasonable person already understands that harassment is an overt act and not just speech.

  9. One of the earliest things I remember my parents telling me, sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

  10. We have a class of memes which, although demonstrable and obvious nonsense, gain currency through sheer repetition. These include: “speech is violence”, in the same category as “war is peace” or “up is down”;
    “Inclusion” used to mean exclusion; “white supremacist” applied to any dissident opinion on, by now, almost any subject; and Muslims (1.8 billion worldwide, a dominant and an entitled majority in more than 40 countries) portrayed as a “marginalized” minority. As the distinguished national socialist Joseph Goebbels explained, “A lie told once remains a lie but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth”.

    1. Goebbels didn’t say actually that but he did say something about how the English were fond of telling lies and that they (the English) believed lies should be big and one should always stick by them.

      What I want to know is how the hell do I know this?

  11. The email also celebrated the high percentage of female students in the new directorate as “correcting [for] years of underrepresentation and marginalization”.

    How does the current exclusion of people remedy the past exclusion of others? It injures the former and does provides no remedy for the later. It would seem that justice, as opposed to politics, would argue for an ongoing balance.

    1. If Mr. Specter feels that 15 of 19 freshman trip chaperones being women deprives him of sufficient male role models, I suggest he just turn on the TV. Or he could just count up his professors; only one third of Dartmouth full time faculty are women.

      Why do I feel like I’m arguing with people who would complain that it’s unfair that there’s a National Women’s History Month (starting next week, in fact) but no equivalent National Man’s History Month? To provide the classic snark answer: every month is man history month. And why don’t we need to promote more male role models for poor Mr. Specter? Because across business, academia, media, sports, etc., etc., etc., most of them already are.

  12. It’s an important principle that speech isn’t violence, even hate speech… But this isn’t hate speech by any stretch of the word. Spector wrote an op-ed complaining about the apparent over-representation of women among the Trips directorate. He concludes that this is due to an over-active pro-female bias.

    One can argue that he is wrong on the causes, or being overly-sensitive, but he hasn’t said anything bigoted.

  13. It’s time that we get this clear: speech, even “hate speech” is nothing like physical violence. The latter wounds bodies and is therefore illegal; the former may, at best, cause offense, and is Constitutionally legal

    No. Speech can very much be more damaging than physical violence. Ask any victim of partner abuse. Many (not all) survivors say the verbal and emotional abuse had a more dramatic and lasting impact than the physical.


    It’s impossible to quantify the damage caused by speech in such a way to legislate it, so it’s very nearly anything goes. It’s easy to draw a hard line on physical violence.

    But please never put speech at “at best offensive”. It has far more potential than that. It is simply impossible to empirically measure the impact.

    1. Spousal abuse isn’t just speech. As far as I know from victims I’ve talked to it is coupled with the threat of physical violence and or actual physical violence.

      1. Not always- but it can be. (partner abuse can be ‘just speech’).

        I’m not arguing that speech should be banned. I’m arguing that “speech doesn’t hurt” is a bad argument because it’s a faulty assertion.

  14. What I find most foolish about the new “everything that disagrees with my view is violence” thing is that their actions are the opposite of what they should be. By cowering in fear of words, they give them power. By shrieking at every offense, they make themselves weak. If there is truth and justice in whatever they claim to be fighting for, it will stand through snarkiness and slurs and poorly worded editorials.

  15. It’s time that we get this clear: speech, even “hate speech” is nothing like physical violence. The latter wounds bodies and is therefore illegal; the former may, at best, cause offense, and is Constitutionally legal.

    Not exactly. Defamation certainly isn’t legal, although it’s typically not criminal (implicitly not considered to be as bad as violence, then). False claims spread throughout society against a single individual is considered to be too damaging to allow without some remedy possible.

    Of course, traditionally liberal democracies do not extend defamation protection to groups, while dictatorships of various types did. Free speech in the Soviet Union was often circumscribed for being defamation against groups. While many western democracies have moved in that direction as well, I tend to think it’s dangerous to freedom, and in the US such laws have not been considered to be permissible under the First Amendment. Speech is the antidote to lies against groups under the First Amendment, and it seems to work in the US, at least.

    That said, dishonest speech against an individual, who can be effectively silenced in a way that a group (we hope) cannot be, is considered to be the kind of offense that can be addressed by civil damages.

    Glen Davidson

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