The Real ‘Violent Speech’ Problem
The New York Times posed a provocative question this weekend in its Sunday Review last weekend: “When Is Speech Violence?”
You can tell just by reading the headline how the paper of record would come out on this subject — and the column did not disappoint.
The writer — Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychology professor at Northeastern University — argues that stressful words can have a seriously negative impact on a person’s health and life. Barrett concludes that this constitutes a “form of violence,” and proceeds to bemoan how right-wing speakers on campus pose a serious threat to minority students.
“That’s why it’s reasonable, scientifically speaking, not to allow a provocateur and hatemonger like Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at your school. He is part of something noxious, a campaign of abuse. There is nothing to be gained from debating him, for debate is not what he is offering,” she concludes.
This anti-free speech argument has been deployed ad nauseam in defense of preventing right-wing personalities from speaking on campus. Apparently the words of Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter will actually physical harm to those who are offended by it. Science says so! (Even though there’s no concrete evidence to show that Ann has reduced the number of years of those she triggers.)
While it is common for liberals to declare opinions that oppose mass immigration or question campus rape hysteria as somehow amounting to violence, what is exceedingly rare is for the respectable progressives to show much concern for genuinely violent speech coming from the extreme left.
The same week that The New York Times was publishing another column attempting to paint non-threatening right-wing speech as violence, groups and personalities associated with the Antifa (“anti-fascist”) movement were churning out more calls for violence against anyone they see as a Nazi.
The Daily Caller uncovered more evidence last week that the popular Antifa website, It’s Going Down, is cheerleading rampant criminality and violent action. The site has 19 pages of content dedicated to the category of sabotage, where its anonymous anarchists writers praise such activities as pouring concrete on train tracks.
There are multiple instances of the site threatening violence against Trump supporters, including promoting a poster showing a bayonet being thrust against a person wearing a MAGA hat.
It’s Going Down recently published an open letter to liberals in order to get their moderate peers to support their violent activities. The article claims that only the violent leftist of Antifa “are willing to fight for” liberals. “[I]t was the intense resistance that anarchists and antifascists engaged in after the election, at the Inauguration, and against the far-Right which made it harder for the regime to roll out the totality of their agenda, for fear of full scale revolt,” It’s Going Down argued.
In spite of this open support for violence and criminality, It’s Going Down is allowed to raise money on Patreon — a site that often bans extreme rightists from doing the same.
These messages aren’t just limited to the fringe corners of the internet — they also pop up in the culture. The most famous example is when “Stranger Things” star David Harbour proclaimed at the Screen Actors Guild Awards that those who “oppress” need a punch in the face. The crowd full of Hollywood elites wildly cheered on that suggestion.
A less famous, but more recent and violent example of that encouragement comes from the left-wing hardcore band Stray from the Path. Last Thursday, the band released a music video for their new song, “Goodnight Alt-Right.” The song is an open endorsement of violence against members of the so-called alt-right, and the video glorifies Antifa stalking and torturing a MAGA hat-wearing fascist.
The singer for the band screams the song’s message loud and clear: “Preach Hate. Expect Hate.”
Of course, the music genres of hardcore and heavy metal are famous for portraying violent fantasies, and we should be weary of construing artistic expression as literal incitement. But Stray from the Path’s song came out at a time when these messages have impact on a large part of society, and the aggression is not just limited in its direction towards the alt-right.
Just ask the everyday folk of the Portland Republican Party, who were threatened with being dragged and beaten by Antifa if they participated in the city’s famous Roses Parade.
Violence against conservatives and Republicans has been remarkably normalized due to extreme partisanship and overblown fears the president is taking America down a path towards fascist dictatorship.
These are the reasons that motivate the real-world violence of Antifa. Professor Barrett may be more worried about the words of Yiannopoulos, but the more serious threat were the black-masked leftists who shut down his UC Berkeley speech with bats and pepper spray. The assaults inflicted on those who showed up to hear the speech were far more real and damaging than any idea that could have been expressed by Milo.
When the Berkeley rioters defended their actions in the school’s newspaper, their arguments sounded remarkably similar to that of The Times column. They were resorting to violence in order to fight the supposed violence of Milo’s words.
It’s quite interesting that Professor Barrett’s argument can be exploited to support physical violence — all because of dubious fears of the “mental harm” inflicted by right-wing rhetoric.
Maybe liberals should stop making arguments for suppressing speech and encouraging actual violence, and focus instead on the terroristic propaganda of Antifa.
The New Jersey Department of Homeland Security considers the left-wing movement a threat, so when will The Times Sunday Review take the same stance?
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