A Dartmouth student’s op-ed on diversity was deemed “violent” by several campus groups and elicited calls to punish the author and the newspaper that printed his piece.
In Ryan Spector’s piece published by The Dartmouth, he criticized the process used to select First-Year Trips directors, a group of upperclassmen that runs the college’s annual summer excursion for incoming freshman. He argued that the skewed gender disparity on the directorate — of the 19 members, 15 are female — was the result of a selection process “that sees race, gender and identity as dictating qualification” despite purportedly being “purely based on merit.”
Spector faced backlash from a number of student groups — more than 30 campus organizations denounced him, many calling his piece an “attack” on women and other minority groups. Several students organizations claimed the piece “endangers the lives” of students and suggested that his fraternity discipline him or dissociate from his views. Others lamented “how violent this article is” and urged The Dartmouth to retract the piece and apologize for “sacrific[ing] the safety and wellbeing of students.”
While many clubs expressed good-faith disagreements with Spector’s arguments, several accused Spector and The Dartmouth of committing violence. As stated by one of Spector’s detractors when calling on Spector’s fraternity to condemn his op-ed: “[W]e call upon Alpha Chi Alpha to acknowledge that their own words do not recognize that their brother has committed an act of violence.”
Students are free to rebuke or ignore writing they find distasteful, and even call for social sanctions on the offending author. However, classifying political speech as literal violence has drastic consequences for those seeking to speak out on campus. Besides trivializing actual violence, conflating controversial opinions with physical harm justifies censorship and perhaps actual physical violence against the speaker in the name of supposed “self-defense” by aggrieved parties. It also sends the perverse message that college students are too weak to confront divergent ideas and must instead shield themselves from perceived “violent” viewpoints.
This is not the first time speech has been mischaracterized as violence, and it will certainly not be the last. Pushing back against this distortion requires drawing the “speech is violence” argument to its devastating conclusion. As stated by Jonathan Haidt and FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff in The Atlantic:
The implication of this expansive use of the word “violence” is that “we” are justified in punching and pepper-spraying “them,” even if all they did was say words. We’re just defending ourselves against their “violence.” But if this way of thinking leads to actual violence, and if that violence triggers counter-violence from the other side . . . then where does it end? In the country’s polarized democracy, telling young people that “words are violence” may in fact lead to a rise in real, physical violence.
Free speech, properly understood, is not violence. It is a cure for violence.
Proving the worth of one’s argument requires persuasion, logic, and a willingness to understand the opposing side. The Dartmouth educational community should engage with (or ignore) Spector’s arguments rather than mislabel speech as violence.