When conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro gave a lecture at UC Berkeley in September, student protesters chanted “Speech is violent, we will not be silent.” Their speech echoed a common refrain in contemporary Leftist responses to racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia in the age of Trump: language is understood not only to express violence, but also to perform it. To understand language as violent is to expand our conventional conception of violence beyond the physical forms it assumes. The contemporary discourse on microaggressions similarly broadens the scope of what constitutes harm. For many it is a microaggression to ask a nonwhite person “Where are you from?” because it implies their foreignness. Microaggressions are real phenomena, there is no doubt. But they can easily succumb to what psychologists call “concept creep.” Notions of what constitutes harm and injury progressively expand. How long will it take before we are talking about nanoaggressions?
The Berkeley protesters did not explicitly characterize Shapiro’s views as “hate speech,” though students at other universities have done so. Yet they seem to have hate speech in mind when they equate language with violence. Can concept creep explain why they perceive Shapiro’s racism, homophobia, and transphobia as hate speech even though American law generally defines hate speech as language that directly inflicts injury or incites violence? Some people take issue with the notion of linguistic violence, insisting that it obscures cases of so-called “real” physical violence. Yet one can reasonably maintain that words bear a capacity to wound and still grasp that their power is not equal to that of a punch in the face. I would be remiss not to acknowledge that my academic research frequently draws upon the insights of Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, for whom all relations are inherently violent: an impossible appropriation of alterity thanks to which our knowledge of and access to others remains incomplete. We should not safeguard the word violence from its amplification beyond bloodshed. Yet we also should not flatten violence’s undeniably unequal forms. Unfortunately, this flattening has become fashionable among students, academics, and progressive activists—as the Berkeley video attests. Indeed, we need perhaps look no further than the contemporary professoriate to surmise where students might have caught on to a flattened conception of violence, one that is also quickly proving to be corrosive for longstanding academic publication practices.
Earlier this year several thousand academics signed a letter demanding that the feminist journal Hypatia retract an article by philosopher Rebecca Tuvel that compared transgenderism and transracialism. For many, simply posing the analogy was deemed offensive and damaging, and therefore warranted the article’s removal. The rationale for the retraction was explicitly based on the contention that the article’s “continued availability” caused “harm” (a word which the letter repeats five times). Of the numerous faults that the signatories found with the article (most of which were based on misreadings of the article), their singling out of the term “transgenderism” was especially disingenuous. “Transgenderism” has fallen out of favor among trans academics and activists in recent years because it is often used to pathologize trans people. Insofar as the term can imply that being trans is an ideology or an illness, this shift in vocabulary clearly bears some legitimacy. Yet the term has been used frequently by a number of prominent gender theorists over the past decade. For example, six years ago Gayle Salamon—another Tuvelgate signatory—won the 2011 Lambda Literary Award for her book, Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality, a monograph that repeatedly employs the term transgenderism. Another prominent signatory, Jack Halberstam, found the offending term unproblematic enough to use in their 2005 book, In a Queer Time in Place. Only in a political climate in which an academic article can be characterized as displaying “egregious levels of liberal white ignorance and discursive transmisogynistic violence,” could the use of a term that became verboten “yesterday” seem to provide legitimate grounds for retraction. Should Tuvel get pilloried because she didn’t get the memo?
Not surprisingly, social media outrage quickly went into high gear as soon as the petition was published online. In one notable example, philosopher Kelly Oliver was accused of enacting violence against marginalized scholars, and even of triggering their PTSD, simply by suggesting that readers ought “to respond with philosophical arguments rather than lobbing insults.” Oliver also questioned the casual manner in which so many people threw around the word violence: “If an essay that openly supports trans identity does violence, and defense of open debate causes PTSD, then by which name should we call the physical violence inflicted on trans people and others daily?”
Given the amount of pushback the signatories received from Tuvelgate, one would have hoped that academics had learned their lesson. Unfortunately, this September another controversy erupted when Third World Quarterly published an article by Bruce Gilley called “The Case for Colonialism.” As Nathan Robinson has detailed, the article is a study in bad faith. Focused entirely on the 19th century, Gilley omits several centuries of colonialist rule. As a result, colonialism is credited with abolishing rather than enabling atrocities such as slavery. A large cohort of the journal’s editorial board resigned when the publisher refused to retract the article. But retraction itself was deemed insufficient. Their petition also called on the journal “to apologize for further brutalizing those who have suffered under colonialism.” As with the Hypatia debacle, language was perceived as hyperbolically injurious: on a level comparable with colonialism itself. Vijay Prashad, one of the TWQ editorial board members who resigned, wrote a response to Gilley called “Third World Quarterly Row: Why Some Western Intellectuals are Trying to Debrutalise Colonialism.” He justifiably used the term brutality throughout the essay to characterize physical forms of violence, such as genocide. Yet this also serves to remind us just how exaggerated the petition’s claim of linguistic “brutality” is in the letter Prashad signed.
In addition to arguing that the pro-colonialism article enacts harm, the editorial board of TWQ also pointed to apparent irregularities in the peer review process as justification for retraction. Yet a careful reading of their letter to Taylor and Francis (the publisher of TWQ) suggests than any purported concern with a “tainted” review process is a red herring at best. The process to which the offending article was reviewed is certainly murky. Taylor and Francis have publicly stated that an internal investigation “clearly demonstrated that the essay had undergone double-blind peer review,” though the editorial board disputes this claim. The board members also assert that they repeatedly asked TWQ “well before this debacle” to improve the transparency of the peer review process. Yet if the review processes have not been transparent for some time, then it stands to reason that the journal will likely have already published at least some additional articles that do not meet the threshold for best practice. If these articles turn out to be ones that express Leftist views, then will they be retracted too? Somehow that seems doubtful. Oddly enough, the board members admit that “the peer-review process is never pure, absolute or neutral,” betraying the editorial team’s “influence . . . at every step.” Yet given this observation regarding peer review’s intrinsic impurity, one is left wondering how they determine when a review process has been “tainted.” The concern with peer review is clearly designed to distract from their core concern: the article’s offensiveness and capacity to harm. The former is not conventionally considered by the Committee on Publication Ethics to justify retraction, and the latter is trumped up beyond any reasonable assessment of the article’s potential for damage. If a pro-colonialism article is interpreted not merely as advocating for the “virtues” of genocide (an odious enough perspective on its own), but also as enacting violence, then it seems to follow that this “violence” must be stomped out: hence, the number of academics on my FB feed parroting the line that engaging or rebutting the article will only amplify its power.
The language-as-violence argument is certainly not new. One especially relevant predecessor can be found in the work of 1990s’ anti-pornography feminists such as Catherine McKinnon. McKinnon argued in Only Words that pornography is a form of sex discrimination because it does not merely represent women in graphic and demeaning ways. Rather, pornographic images directly enact their humiliation. In Excitable Speech (1997), Judith Butler dissented from MacKinnon, arguing that anti-pornography feminists, as well as some perspectives on hate speech, attribute an “inflated and efficacious” power to representation insofar as it is conceived as operating in a performative manner, or doing what it says. Ironically enough, Butler signed the Hypatia letter, and thereby lent her name to a cause that placed linguistic harm center stage. While it is a tall order to expect a signatory to agree with a petition’s every word, the letter’s focus on harm might have given pause to someone like Butler who previously demonstrated a sharp suspicion of exaggerated claims of linguistic efficacy. Has she changed her mind?
The leveling effect of the language-as-violence argument bears urgently on effective forms of political resistance in the age of Trump. Once distinctions between different forms of violence are effaced, it becomes impossible for activists to choose their battles wisely. While I disagree with 99.9% of what Ben Shapiro says, his recent testimony before the California legislature on the topic of hate speech correctly identified the reason for UCB’s $600,000 security bill for his lecture in September. It cost the university this exorbitant amount of money because Antifa and other groups planned physically violent counter protests on campus. As it turns out, the protests were relatively mild in comparison to those staged against Milo Yiannopoulos last February. I have heard some of the same people who promote the idea of linguistic violence try to downplay the Leftist violence that occurred at Berkeley because it was largely limited to property damage. It certainly requires strong cognitive dissonance to believe that words wound but breaking the windows of the MLK Student Union is “not real violence.”
In the age of outrage, it becomes difficult for people to see the differential harms caused by an inadvertent verbal slight, an intentional slur, or an article whose vocabulary was recently deemed outmoded. Has the “bigly” worldview of the Barker in Chief—for whom everything is perceived in outsized terms—infected oppositional politics in ways the Left is unable to notice? How can we avoid becoming unwitting participants in this political circus and regain a sense of proportion? For surely it is a bad sign if Leftists believe that a run-of-the-mill conservative hack like Shapiro merits a counter-protest comparable to that against someone like Richard Spencer. After all, the latter’s explicitly white supremacist views previously led directly to physical violence in Charlottesville, and now sadly in Gainesville, too.