Is speech dangerous? Do some words qualify as “violent”? I was raised on the idea that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” On the other hand, we are also taught that Jesus was “the Word,” and that words have power to change lives, for good or evil. Growing up, I liked the idea of “killing words” in the book Dune, that saying a specific word with a specific intention could become a weapon to protect you from those who wish you harm. It seemed a very literal version of “the pen is mightier than the sword.”
“When we dehumanise and demonise our opponents, we abandon the possibility of peacefully resolving our differences, and seek to justify violence against them.” Nelson Mandela
A modern trend is that we have trigger and content warnings when someone shares information or stories that may cause anxiety or trauma to those who have survived scarring experiences. We also try to use more sensitive language to be “politically correct” rather than being offensive toward groups of people who have often been marginalized in the past. I support the idea of political correctness and improving society’s treatment of those who have been marginalized.
“But it is not what I am saying that is hurting you; it is that you have wounds that I touch by what I have said. You are hurting yourself. There is no way I can take this personally.”
― Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom
Last week I explored a chapter I found somewhat troubling in The Coddling of the American Mind. This week, I’ll tackle another chapter that has some potentially problematic ideas in it, the idea that the modern trend of politically correct speech and considering some speech dangerous is making the younger generation weaker (less resilient) and more willing to resort to violence when threatened. It is also contributing to less civil discourse, even while drawing attention to the ways in which unintentional incivility occurs.
The authors cite case after case of real world examples from universities in which a professor did or said something a student found objectionable (or used a textbook that contained something a student deemed offensive), and even if that professor did so while explaining to the students that the material was not his or her own perspective, a student complaint to administration led to that professor ultimately losing a job, tenure, or reputation. There were examples of speakers being invited to campus that resulted in violent demonstrations as well. Some of the conclusions from the authors:
- When we consider speech to be “dangerous,” it makes us weaker and more vulnerable when in reality, we are stronger than ideas and speech.
- Calling speech violence makes it psychologically more acceptable to commit physical violence to combat ideas.
- This creates a “call out” culture where reputations are destroyed over a deliberately simplistic understanding of the actions or words of others by vindictive students who are supported and praised for their bravery while really just employing mob mentality.
While the cases shared are somewhat alarming in how over-sensitive they seem, almost like a PC witch hunt at some liberal arts colleges, coming from within Mormondom (and even within the red state of AZ), they feel . . . foreign to my experience. I wish I encountered more people on a regular basis who give a damn about the experiences of marginalized people, but honestly, I find a lot of people who are surprisingly callous.
Generally, I agree with the idea that speech isn’t violence and calling it violence is hyperbole. The book also gives the dictum, prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child. In other words, a resilient adult is able to navigate difficult situations that will eventually arise better than one for whom the road has always been made easy.
In a discussion in another forum someone was bemoaning the authoritative and shaming approach to bishop’s interviews (not specifically abuse), and many were agreeing that they should be done away with. I joked that kids need to learn to lie to bishops on their own terms. I was kidding in substance, but in another manner, I was not. If someone asserts authority over you, and lots of people will throughout your life, you are the one who gives them that authority. They can stamp their foot and say “serve me,” but only your agreement that they hold power over you makes them powerful.
The book points out the flaw with something called Emotional Reasoning. When we take our emotions as “facts” rather than “information,” we are prone to going quickly down a rabbit hole of fear and feeling unsafe. The qualities of this thinking include:
- Catastrophizing. Imagining the worst case possibility as likely or certain to occur.
- Labeling. Using terms like “rape culture” and “microaggression” for accidental or unintentional slights, even if these terms help to bring a societal issue to the forefront.
- Overgeneralizing. Assuming that the idea behind the emotion we are feeling is widespread and powerful.
- Dichotomous thinking. Seeing people as either good or bad, not misinformed or scared or flawed, but actually seeking our demise.
“You can have many great ideas in your head, but what makes the difference is the action. Without action upon an idea, there will be no manifestation, no results, and no reward”
― Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom
The book points out that trigger warnings may be counter-productive to victims of PTSD:
“Trigger warnings are counter-therapeutic because they encourage avoidance of reminders of trauma, and avoidance maintains PTSD. Severe emotional reactions triggered by course material are a signal that students need to prioritize their mental health and obtain evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral therapies that will help them overcome PTSD. These therapies involve gradual, systematic exposure to traumatic memories until their capacity to trigger distress diminishes.”
The book talks about the dangers of our current “call out” culture in which individuals are publicly shamed for acts they didn’t intend to be offensive. The New Testament cautions us not to make someone an offender for a word. However, a lot of this calling out is long overdue, in my opinion, and I certainly think that it’s as important to stop being offensive as it is to be thick-skinned and slow to take offense. As we’ve seen in the #metoo movement, there are too many things that it’s been the norm to let go unaddressed, without checking that behavior.
The book asserts: “Many students on the left have become increasingly receptive to the idea that violence is sometimes justified as a response to speech they believe is “hateful.” At the same time, many students on the right have become increasingly eager to invite speakers that are likely to provoke a reaction from the left.”
In this reactive culture, both sides are baiting each other which may feel like winning but is ultimately unproductive. The reality is that neither side is engaging with the other. It’s not solely that we are dealing with two different sets of facts; it’s that we can watch the same set of facts in such different ways that it’s as though we aren’t watching the same thing.
What makes speech dangerous is power to enact or normalize ideas that harm people. For example, was the anti-Semitic speech in pre-Nazi Germany dangerous? Yes! It led to a normalization of radical ideas that resulted in genocide. Is homophobic speech dangerous in the same way? I certainly think it could be. But if we’ve learned anything in Trump’s America, it’s that avoiding these ideas and labeling those people who hold them as “bad” hasn’t stopped them. They just went underground until they could surface again, turning up like the proverbial bad penny.
The book proceeds to call this avoidance of “dangerous” or “trigger-inducing” speech Safetyism. Safetyism is the idea that we have to protect young people, both physically and emotionally, from upsetting ideas (or people who disagree) as well as real world dangers. When people seek “safe spaces” and request “trigger warnings,” the authors assert that we are dealing with “Safetyism,” and that leads to censorship of ideas, and a weakened ability to deal with opposition in a social environment in mature ways.
The book makes the analogy to peanut allergies which were relatively unheard of in my youth, but are now so prevalent–and life-threatening–that many campuses prohibit peanut butter and peanut products from their lunch rooms. What happened in the last few decades? By protecting children from peanut allergies, rather than making them more immune to peanuts, peanuts became deadly. Peanut allergies are now a very real, very common threat, whereas they didn’t used to be nearly so common nor so deadly. It is precisely because we fought them through avoidance that they became a bigger threat. Kids did not build up the antibodies needed to combat milder peanut allergies through routine low-grade exposure.
The book talks about the idea of “emotional safety,” a relatively new concept on college campuses. If a person doesn’t “feel” safe, as he or she (or zhe) defines it, the teacher may be accused of not caring about student safety, and students may become upset.
When my son attended BYU-I during the 2016 election, this idea of safe spaces was at a high point. He, like many others his age (though not many at BYU) wore a safety pin to symbolize alliance with groups targeted by Trump in what many considered hate speech: LGBT, racial minorities, women. He found himself surrounded by those who shared Trump’s views, whose comments he found upsetting. He didn’t want to go back.
While I agree that some environments are toxic, I also pointed out that he could have spoken up. Just wearing a safety pin isn’t the same as telling someone, “Hey, I don’t agree with what you are saying. I’m friends with gay people, and you’re wrong about them.” Assuming that everyone else agreed with these terrible comments doesn’t mean they did. Even the boys who said these homophobic things might have been using them as a cover for their own sexual orientation. Or like my son, the boys who didn’t say anything could have been silently upset and afraid to confront others. He can avoid the problem by avoiding BYU-I, or he can become more comfortable speaking up.
Sam Harris’ book on Lying talks about the danger of lying when confronted with danger. He uses an example of a murderer coming to your door, and lying to protect the person he’s seeking. He pointed out that even if you lie to protect others in the home from a murderer, you only kick the problem down the road. The killer will go to the next house to murder someone. Likewise, when we avoid dealing with ideas we dislike, they don’t go away. They go underground and spread.
There’s a tactic used in lucid dreaming when you are plagued by a danger in a nightmare. If you flee, the danger grows. If you turn to face it, it shrinks and eventually disappears. That’s an idea I can get behind.
- How do we balance protecting kids from real dangers like predators and sexual abusers and giving them the tools to be resilient when they are faced with danger?
- How do we point out previously overlooked offensive behaviors without falling into the traps of emotional reasoning (catastrophising, etc.), particularly when there are still plenty of people who don’t want to acknowledge the concerns of the marginalized?
- Do you see a parallel between this “safetyism” trend and ideas like “obey your leaders” and “not even once”? Are we creating lack of spiritual resilience in this avoidance of risk and thinking?
- What has happened when you’ve either avoided or confronted an objectionable idea?
- Can speech be violence or is that hyperbole?
 For a recent example, the Kavanaugh hearing was to me very obviously showing a person who was unfit for the office. Whether or not he sexually assaulted Dr. Ford (I believe he did attempt to do so), he was so partisan and lacking in composure that he did not meet my standards for a judiciary. But to the conservatives watching it, they saw a favored son mistreated, seeing it as unfair to judge anyone based on their adolescent behavior, and seeing it as normal for someone to react the way he did in the face of unfair treatment.