Sticks and stones hurt, but are words violent, too?

Jonathan Rauch

June 29, 1993|By Jonathan Rauch

FIRST incident: I am walking on K Street in Washington when a black man (I am white) soliciting for an AIDS charity approaches me. When I shake my head and hurry past, he yells: "What does that mean, shaking your head? What does that mean? You're a [expletive] educated redneck!"

Question: Has this man, with his apparently racist slur, violated my human rights?

Second incident: I am in a convenience store near the University of Virginia. I catch the eye of a campus jock. I hear him say, in my general direction, "[expletive] fruit!"

Has this man violated my human rights?

Third incident: Black students are noisily conducting a sorority rite outside a University of Pennsylvania dormitory late at night. A white student shouts for quiet, calling them "water buffalo." He is charged with racial harassment and dragged through expulsion hearings. Penn becomes a national laughingstock, and eventually the charges are dropped.

Sheldon Hackney, the University of Pennsylvania's president, is the administration's nominee to head the National Endowment for the Humanities. Faced with attempts to punish hurtful speech at Penn, he waffled. That was deplorable, but it also wasn't surprising. Liberal intellectuals, from Mr. Hackney on down, won't be able to stand up to PC until they learn to cope with the humanitarian argument at its core. At his confirmation hearings last week, Mr. Hackney said he had been a victim of "slander by slogan."

At Penn, students who trashed a whole press run of the campus newspaper said they felt assaulted by a conservative columnist. "It really hurts me," one student said.

When I published an article arguing that harsh and hurtful words are an inevitable part of the search for knowledge, a writer replied: "You cannot forbid physical violence and permit verbal violence." This line of thinking -- what I call the humanitarian attack on liberal debate -- is behind much of what's going on today.

Why have so many campus speech codes cropped up? Why so many new hate-speech and hate-crime laws? Why so much pressure from PC activists to curtail offensive expression? Offensive words are nothing new.

What's new is the humanitarian objection to free speech: Hurtful talk, like physical violence, causes pain and thereby violates the human rights of its targets.

Like Marxism and Islamic fundamentalism, the humanitarian attack is seductive, principled and dangerous: seductive because it seems to promise an end to victimization and suffering, principled because it is powered by moral outrage, dangerous because it leads to authoritarian control of speech and inquiry.

Until the concept of "verbal violence" is discredited, it will keep inspiring activists to hunt for legal ways to restrict speech. It will eat at the moral foundation of the liberal intellectual system, a system that sorts sound beliefs from frivolous ones by means of robust and, yes, often hurtful criticism.

That system's premise is that hurtful words are not like violence. When someone calls me "redneck," "fruit" or "water buffalo," I have a choice. I can view him as a human rights violator who ought to be punished, or as a man wearing a sign that says, "I am a jerk." The humanitarians say I should expect society to take the former view. I say it should expect me to take the latter view. That's what the argument is about, and it won't be over soon.

In the debate over the Hackney confirmation, chances are conservatives will rail against campus radicals and liberals will insist that mountains are being made out of molehills. Instead of challenging the misguided humanitarianism at the heart of PC, partisans may try to rerun the Lani Guinier debate. That would be a shame.

We free-speechers like to dismiss PC partisans as radical loonies, academic faddists and power-hungry politicians. Doubtless some are. But to dismiss them with a snort while waving the First Amendment, as conservatives and civil libertarians tend to do, is to underestimate the appeal and staying power of their argument. Only by moving beyond ridicule can we hope to kill PC.

Jonathan Rauch is author of "Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought."

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