When so-called “white nationalist” Richard Spencer got punched in the face, I can’t say I had an ounce of sympathy for him. I wish I could say the same for others. The feeling of some was that, in a civilized society where free speech and the rule of law are valued, people should not be punched in the face for their beliefs.
Should harm be done to someone simply for what they say? Put in another way, is the use of coercion or force ever a correct response to actions that may not do overt harm?
To those questions are my counter: is it possible to do harm to someone without using force or coercion? Can words or even a complete lack of action do harm to another? Even more importantly, can the harm be commensurate or even worse than actual coercion or force?
Despite what many people claim, ideas are extremely powerful. There is not a thing created by man today that is not the result of an idea. So the notion that ideas are not only powerful but can have power is pretty obvious to me. But there are people that seem to think that they are benign by default. I have to disagree.
Can words do harm? Can communication, particularly when done in bad faith, breed violence and contempt? Is the willful destruction of reason just as, or even more, dangerous than the use of force? By now, if you are like me, examples should be flowing through your mind in the affirmative. The most egregious example is Adolph Hitler. He was one man with a voice, a man with a handful of powerful ideas. He used that voice and those ideas to take over a nation and turn it into a world power. He then used that nation to plunge most of the world into the most devastating war in history. There were those in his day who thought he was simply a thug or a relatively harmless criminal, that his rhetoric was meaningless. He had few weapons, he had no real army. But, armed with ideas, he gained both and literally set the world on fire.
We’ve created a society where we want to have our cake and eat it too. We want free speech but we want our “safe spaces.” We want to post our ideas in public forums but not face any criticism, valid or otherwise, or ridicule. We want to protect the right to say whatever we want, however we want, but never have to face our opposition. Or, more importantly, face repercussion.
Getting back to my counter questions, what about bullying? Are those just words or are they coercion? If they involve no threats of bodily harm but simply personal insults, is that free speech? Does the intention of malice make it violence? And, if so, how is that any different than someone who desires an ethnically pure homeland, by force if necessary?
Society has deemed that force, either by coercion or actual, is the boundary no one but the State will cross. The State maintains a complete monopoly on force in order to protect the “rule of law.” But what about harm that results not through force but through the systematic destruction of personal sovereignty and dignity? Think about a child who is mentally and verbally abused but never struck. What about the ones who are simply ignored, their needs never met? Is that not violence? What about the violence of being laid off from your job or being denied a promotion because you are a woman or a minority? Are prejudice, bigotry, deceitfulness, and oppression not also violence?
Violence comes in many forms and it is always about control. However, not all violence is coercion or force. I could literally write all day about the violence that exists that has absolutely nothing to do with force. And behind all of it is an idea. Sometimes its expressed in the written word or spoken, most of the times it isn’t. But it all starts with the simple little seed of a thought. And it can, does, and will harm someone.
Just because they are “just words” doesn’t mean that they are not harmful. Just because it is “just a thought” doesn’t mean that someone will not suffer or die because of it. Malice can harm, but so can callousness, deception, and apathy.
In my opinion, we’ve institutionalized cowardice by making force the boundary. Any action that does harm, either word, deed, or even inaction, should have the potential for dire consequences. When it doesn’t, the result is like a pressure cooker without a release valve. Sooner or later, it’s simply going to explode.