“Why do you use that word so much? I do not think it means what you think it means.” So responds Inigo Montoya to his boss Vizzini’s promiscuous use of the exclamation “Inconceivable!” Montoya’s question could be asked of those who term certain speech they don’t like “violent.” It is worse than poor diction to use “violent” this way — it invidiously links physical force with something that shares none of the traits making, say, killing someone so egregious. It implicitly justifies the banning of “violent speech,” and the use of real violence to respond to “spoken violence.”
“Violence” in normal speech refers to extreme occurrences in the physical world. Think wars, earthquakes and bodily convulsions from sickness. “Violence” can also be used metaphorically. A poor translation is said to “do violence to” the author’s meaning. This metaphorical usage imports one connotation the word “violence” takes in its literal usage: that of destruction — or, put drily, negative and durable change. A samurai is to his opponent’s body what a jackleg editor is to a manuscript. In the first case, the body loses an arm. In the second, the “body” of the text loses words or semantic content.
Now, physical violence is the opposite of peace. Any society that does not ably regulate violence is, to that extent, not a functioning society. Violence directed against someone needs justification: for instance, that individual’s having himself committed an unjustified act of violence. This means the moral presumption is against the violent actor (he needs to supply some reason why he behaved as he did), whereas it is on the side of the peaceful actor. When we call something violent, we therefore label it as prima facie unacceptable.
So what of this sentence from a July letter to the News: “The truth is that asking black workers (staff and faculty) and black students to work and live alongside pastoral portrayals of slavery is an act of violent exclusion.” The letter recounts the story of Corey Menafee, the former Calhoun employee who, “understandably tired of having to work in an environment decorated with … idealized images of slavery,” broke a window depicting slavery.
In point of fact, no one, of any race, is literally excluded from Calhoun by artwork or any other inanimate object. That artwork, no matter how unseemly it is to look at, and no matter how painful the memories it evokes, applies force to no one. It is a kind of expression. Of course it makes people feel things against their wills, but so does all sense data. The artwork may disgust, but we can act despite disgust. In contrast, the man who just got his arm lopped off is inhibited by his loss. The text whose meaning was (metaphorically) “violated” is now similarly deficient. The artwork in Calhoun does not do anything of this sort to its viewers.
And this is true for all speech, even that closely linked to actual violence. Words can order executioners to pull triggers; words cannot pull triggers. Words can incite crowds to attack individuals; incitements can be peacefully ignored.
Menafee, in contrast to the artwork he destroyed, did indeed commit an act of violence. He destroyed property. The authors of the letter “understand that Yale values its property.” But they are far more concerned with the “racist imagery and legacy” on the property: an imagery and a legacy that the authors so detest that they call it, but not Menafee’s destructive behavior, violent.
And now we see how dishonest it is to call speech, such as the artwork in Calhoun, violent. In turning expression into a threat to peace and order, it justifies physical violence in response.
This reversal of common usage is just Orwellian doublespeak. Art is violence, breaking windows is not; or, if you like, war is peace and peace is war. The trick turns language that might be used impartially into a pawn of the speaker’s ideology. The proof here is that the authors’ use (and omission) of “violent” mirrors their opinions about the speech (and window-breaking) in question. “Violence” was used in the letter not to independently assess the means Menafee or the artwork employed, but to evaluate the cause for which each acted. “Violent,” as the authors use it, is synonymous with “bad.” It has no independent content.
The authors use this legerdemain to excuse real (albeit minor) violence, basically by calling it self-defense against the “violence” of the Calhoun artwork. Is there a reason why this reasoning might not be used to excuse violence against real people guilty of “violent” (offensive) speech? I cannot see one. Violence is violence, after all.
Cole Aronson is a junior in Calhoun College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .