The Free Voice, the website of the United States Free Speech Union, takes up the issue of “words as violence”, instantiated by two issues: the claim of some Muslims that anti-Islamic speech is more dangerous than speech criticizing other faiths, and the cancellation of a Dave Chappelle comedy show in Minneapolis because some transgender activists claim that Chappelle is a “transphobe” and that his act is harmful to transsexual people. Both the religious and transsexual activists see criticisms as “violence”, demanding special immunity from both criticism and mockery. Click to read.
I’ve seen only snippets of Dave Chappelle’s act that got him in trouble, and it seemed to me to be the Lenny Bruce brand of humor: saying what makes people simultaneously laugh and be discomfited—all with the aim of getting them to examine their views. While I didn’t find it nearly as funny as some of his other bits, it is free speech, people would have filled Chappelle’s audience, and it’s wrong to allow the bullies to cancel his show on free-speech grounds.
As for Islam, I regard it as the most dangerous current religion, though Catholicism used to be at the top. Right now only four words need be said, “Charlie Hebdo” and “Salman Rushdie”. All religions should be criticized and, when necessary, mocked, and none are exempt, including Islam, which especially deserves opprobrium for its violence and oppression. (Note: I’m not saying that all Muslims are violent and oppressive.)
Author Jon Zobenica cites a paper from the journal Critical Inquiry arguing that Islam is uniquely harmed by criticism, mainly because, in contrast to Christianity (but not Orthodox Judaism!), Islam is a way of life, not merely a set of beliefs. My response is “so what”? If something offends you, don’t listen, and above all don’t try to cancel it. Or protest if you will, as vociferously as you can, but don’t claim that you’re being harmed by verbiage that’s “violent.”
This goes for Chappelle as well. Zobenica tries to defend him by a tactic I don’t find particularly palatable: showing that the rate of murder of transssexual people is much lower than people think—about 24 per year. His point seems to be that transsexuals aren’t really being “harmed” in disproportionate numbers:
The CDC and TMMP date ranges don’t exactly align, of course, and the numbers do increase (as homicides did overall, significantly, for 2020), but the percentages are a sliver of those established by Pew, indicating—reassuringly, one would think—that trans people are at the very least not disproportionately the victims of the most violent of violent crimes in America. Indeed, something like the opposite seems to be the case.
But this addresses an argument that differs from the free-speech argument: the claim that transsexual people are especially vulnerable victims of violence. While the data don’t seem to support that (and the issue of high murder of sex workers needs to be addressed), this says nothing about whether criticizing transsexual activism or making it part of a comedy routine is wrong, much less causing that “violence.” Routines like Chappelle’s almost certainly don’t provoke violence. While every death is to be mourned, and, in my view, transsexual people should be treated with respect and, with very few exceptions, given the same privileges and rights as anyone else, that view says nothing about one’s right to criticize them or make them into subjects for comedy. This might be tasteless, as people claim Chappelle’s routine is (I’d need to see it first), but to say that he—or Islam—are to be censored because they promote violence is putting the blame on the wrong people. Zobenica explains how American courts judge whether words are “violence”:
But what if there really has been someone of bigoted leanings who, after seeing a Chappelle special, was motivated to commit a hate crime against a trans person? Or what if there really has been a trans person who, after seeing a Chappelle special, felt so violated by the comic’s sentiments that he/she/they was driven to self-harm? And what if, in both cases, this could be established? Would Chappelle be responsible?
No, he would not. Just as abridging speech is a double wrong (committed not just against the speaker but also against all who have the right to decide for themselves whether they want to hear and listen to that speaker), speech itself entails a double responsibility—that of the listener as well as the speaker. Actions taken on the part of a listener are not the direct responsibility of the speaker unless that speaker has engaged in speech that is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action,” per the Supreme Court’s June 1969 decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio (yes, the Klan case).
That same summer of 1969, Nina Simone took to a stage in Harlem and chanted to a lively and receptive audience the following words: “Are you ready black people? Are you really ready? Ready to do what is necessary? To do what is necessary to do? . . . Are you ready to kill, if necessary? Is your mind ready? Is your body ready? . . . Are you ready to smash white things? To burn buildings? Are you ready?”
One doubts there’s anything quite so explicit and exhortatory in Dave Chappelle’s oeuvre, but even if someone in the audience left that concert and saw fit to smash white things, even to kill, Simone—per the Brandenburg standard—is guilty of nothing more than performing political art (and being one of the most singular talents and distinctive voices in twentieth-century American music). Simone does sound awfully close to advocating violence, but the standard upheld in Brandenburg is that advocacy is not the same as action, and that this distinction must be kept strictly in mind, lest the urge to aggressively suppress get the better of us.
The Charlie Hebdo affair and the attacks on Salman Rushdie and others who have criticized Islam worry me. If you think of words of criticism—words that are permissible under the First Amendment—as “violence”, then you’ll be more likely to use violence against those who utter them. I don’t think Dave Chappelle or J.K. Rowling are endangered, but as the “hate speech as violence” meme spreads, who knows? Indeed, that’s what this article warns against:
As we have argued elsewhere, the danger of incessantly and recklessly equating words with violence must be far more carefully scrutinized than has become the custom. The more we’re encouraged to think of words as violence, the more some among us will likely come to think of violence as a proportional response to words. . .
This kind of rhetorical inflation has to be stopped. When someone brings up the “words as violence” trope, remind them of the decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio.