Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Speech, Not Violence


With her avid, even emotional, interrogation of the presidents of MIT, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania, it was easy to mistake US Representative Elise Stefanik for an ardent foe of anti-Semitism. However

 

In May of 2022, Annie Karni of The New York Times wrote

Stephen K. Bannon, the former Trump White House official who now hosts an influential podcast on the right, said Ms. Stefanik could not care less about criticism from the left, using an expletive for emphasis.

What keeps her up at night, Mr. Bannon said, is any threat from the right.

“She’s in a competition right now with Representative Jim Banks about who is going farther right,” he said, referring to the Indiana Republican and chairman of the Republican Study Committee, who has also refashioned himself from a movement conservative into a Trump acolyte as he seeks to rise in power in Washington.

Some of Ms. Stefanik’s recent moves, people close to her said, appeared to be motivated by her internal competition with Mr. Banks.

Attacking top leaders of prominent institutions of higher learning can only ingratiate Stefanik with the hard right she has been courting, as well as with the disgraced ex-President whom she prays selects her as a running mate.  

Yet the cause of ending- or of even examining- the culture and circumstances on college campuses which have led to the toleration of anti-Semitism which appeared to enervate Stefanski was not well served by her performance in committee.  

In July of 2017, in response to a movement which has only grown since, social psychologist Jonathan Rauch and FIRE president and CEO Greg Lukianoff noted

Aggressive and even violent protests have erupted at some of the country’s most progressive schools, such as Berkeley, Middlebury College, and Evergreen State College. Are these schools brutal and toxic environments for members of various identity groups? Or has a set of new ideas on campus taught students to see oppression and violence wherever they look? If students are repeatedly told that numerical disparities are proof of systemic discrimination, and a clumsy or insensitive question is an act of aggression (a “microaggression”), and words are sometimes acts of violence that will shorten your life, then it begins to make sense that they would worry about their safety, chronically, even within some of America’s most welcoming and protective institutions.

One of the ideas which concerned Rauch and Lukianoff may have been, presumably inadvertently, promoted by Stefanik's condemnation of calls on campuses for "genocide" which have never been specifically made. They note

Of all the ideas percolating on college campuses these days, the most dangerous one might be that speech is sometimes violence. We’re not talking about verbal threats of violence, which are used to coerce and intimidate, and which are illegal and not protected by the First Amendment. We’re talking about speech that is deemed by members of an identity group to be critical of the group, or speech that is otherwise upsetting to members of the group. This is the kind of speech that many students today refer to as a form of violence.

They explain that "the idea that speech is violence is so dangerous" because 

It tells the members of a generation already beset by anxiety and depression that the world is a far more violent and threatening place than it really is. It tells them that words, ideas, and speakers can literally kill them. Even worse: At a time of rapidly rising political polarization in America, it helps a small subset of that generation justify political violence.

Stefanik might have assisted the consideration of speech codes had she been intellectually honest. Rather than condemning calls for genocide- which have largely, if not completely, been absent- she could have invoked the danger inherent in the common chant of "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free," a call for the elimination of the Jewish state of Israel.

But she did not. Similarly, in covering the testimony of the three college presidents, the media has obsessed over how badly the college presidents did at what the news media implicitly views as a performance, a failed one. Instead, newspersons should have focused on the controversial and debatable issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion and especially upon the harmful impulse of equating speech with violence. It turns out that neither they nor Representative Elise Stefanik was interested in shedding light on a very important topic.



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