Whenever we speak, it is important to be precise. Communication depends on it. Words have a meaning for a reason, and once we change the meaning of words in our society, we risk not being able to describe things accurately.
Words are words, violence is violence. Some words may call out for violence directly, but even then, they themselves are not violence – they would be just what they are, endorsing or calling for a violent act, and this would then indeed be punishable.
Other than that, some words may have violent consequences, they may themselves hurt, they may themselves feel like a physical attack – but they are not in themselves violence. There may be words carrying a violent meaning, but it does make a difference whether somebody attacks somebody else with words or with physical aggression. This is so obvious that it should not need to be pointed out, but apparently, it needs to be done.
Why does this matter? Not only do we need to describe things correctly; we also need to be able to respond correctly to an incident. When Chris Rock joked about Jada Pinkett Smith’s appearance in 2022’s Academy Awards ceremony, that was the typical roasting banter every such show has been known for. A member of the cultural elite bashing verbally another member of the cultural elite is fair game. Pinkett Smith felt insulted and communicated this to her husband Will Smith, who then in a deeply misguided and antiquated display of chivalry jumped up to the stage and physically assaulted Chris Rock by punching him in the face. Whoever has had that happen to them knows how much that hurts. This was wrong on two levels: First, everyone in the audience is fair game for such jokes and has been for years. If you attend the event, you invite such jokes. It’s the elite making fun of themselves, and the show master is the court jester who for a brief moment in time gets to diminish the elite’s power by making fun of them. Jada Pinkett Smith may have felt this was an insult, but she has been very open about her alopecia, Chris Rock compared her baldness with that of Demi Moore in G.I. Jane, and it was funny even to Will Smith – who did laugh. Comparing Jada Pinkett Smith with Demi Moore is not an insult, on the contrary – and if you can’t laugh off the self-perceived shortcomings of your appearance, you have not grown up as an individual. (Take it from me, I am overweight, I have heard it all, I can handle it. I am also balding, and I will gladly accept the verbal punishment. Contrary to Pinkett Smith, I am neither a member of the cultural elite nor rich.) Now, not only did the Smiths not take the joke for what it was, but Will Smith changed the register and responded with physical violence. This was a disproportionate response. The wisdom of the “eye for an eye” principle is that it calls for a proportional response – if you take something from me, I only have the right to respond in kind. It is a principle for de-escalation. By changing registers – punching physically instead of verbally – Will Smith showed that he did not know the difference between a verbal jab and a physical one. He would have very much had the right to shout back a witty reply, or rather, have his wife do it – after all, in the age of emancipation, how dare he take agency away from his wife? What is chivalry in this case other than the demonstration that somehow your wife can’t act on her own?
When Salman Rushdie wrote the Satanic Verses, he did not “insult Islam”, even though the Ayatollah Khomeini pretended as such. Even if someone has the intention to insult you (which Rushdie, I believe, did not), you have the choice to indeed feel insulted; and typically, choosing to do so is a sign of immaturity. Anything and everyone can be criticized, anything and everyone should be subject to analysis, creative play and, indeed, even deliberately mocked, caricatured, or insulted. Even cultural boundaries can be transgressed, although this could be seen as impolite.
Yet the very point of art, just as the very point of critique, is to rattle, to stir, to provoke someone into rethinking widely held assumptions. This is the difference between “art” and “craft”: While craft wants to please, to decorate, to adorn, art may at occasion want to do that as well, but its purpose really is to elevate the cultural discussion. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were – according to Plato – outrageous distortions of the way the gods were seen, they were insults to believers in the ancient Greek religion, and they were successful because of this. Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung makes a similar mockery of ancient German gods – Wotan/Odin is described not as a revered and honorable deity, but as a petty, womanizing, money-wasting, world-endangering fool whose actions cause the end of the world (how Nazis ever thought Wagner was somehow celebrating “Germanic” traditions is simply beyond my understanding.) Andres Serrano’s “Immersion (Piss Christ)” proved quite the scandal since 1987, and you can certainly debate its meaning, and it did generate death threats against the artist as well – but Christianity is still alive and kicking, just as Rushdie did not destroy Islam. The respective artists’ lives though have very well been impacted by the lunatics claiming that their works, their words or artwork, were somehow a threat to their own existence.
Does this mean all speech should be celebrated? Certainly not. But the answer to speech can only be counter-speech, and only when speech directly calls for violence should it be legally punishable. Do you feel you need to make a point that offends others predictably? Go ahead, but expect to be chastised for it. Freedom of speech does not eliminate criticism. You criticize something, expect to be criticized in return.
The playing field, certainly, is not always level. If a minoritized group has to suffer denigratory speech, it certainly may have less possibilities for effective counter-speech. We should be sensitive to this issue. This would also be an invitation for others to show solidarity and support. And yet, nobody is sacrosanct, and there are good reasons for protecting speech, any speech, in principle.
Speech control seems to be pursued by some as a form of thought control. To make something “unsayable” aims at making something ideally “unthinkable” and thus “undoable.” I am highly suspicious of these arguments. Human beings – as all of history has shown – are very resistant to such means of manipulation, as well-meaning they may well be. Conformity is typically the result of repression – whether of external origin or internalized. You may want to do what you are told, because the consequences of obstinacy would be punitive, or you may even have internalized that you should follow what everyone else does, lest you be ostracized or shunned by the community. But underneath that conformity will be building resentment, which will eventually find its outlet. The repressed will eventually return – even if it will take a while – and once it does, the consequences may be worse than to actually allow free thought, free speech and free action in the first place, in which words and thoughts are free, and bad acts are punished by a functioning legal system.
Finally, to outlaw speech eventually means to outlaw criticism, contrariness, and non-conformity: if you believe in change, even think you are a revolutionary of sorts, this is the last path you would want to take because it would eventually disallow your own desire to change society for the better. Whoever may be the rabble-rouser of the day, whoever you might prefer to be silent and to stop annoying others, whoever you may want to exert less influence will be another person, part of another group tomorrow or some day down the road. Enemies of the state tend to never be the same. To be “contrarian” used to be the hallmark of the political “Left”, now it seems to be associated to be on the “Right”, whatever that means. Be careful what you wish for – the very speech policing that might seem desirable for those whose opinion you do not like today will eventually be extended towards yourself.
The confusion between words and violence is a bad idea, and it will only lead to bad outcomes. It is high time we put a stop to this as soon as possible.