Dear Academia: Opposing Views Are Not “Discursive Violence.”

One of modern liberalism’s biggest problems is that we have taken after the Bush Administration in allowing euphemisms to redefine concepts that are already well-defined.  Why, the U.S. doesn’t torture because we don’t “torture.”  We engage in “enhanced interrogation.”  Unfortunately, the left-wing engages in this bastardization of Webster’s in a distinctly Orwellian way.  Once we co-opt a word or concept, we can use it as a weapon.  You see this in online communities.  Tweeting someone without asking for permission is “harassment.” (Not to mention a Catch-22.)  A doctor engaging in lifesaving measures during childbirth is “birth rape.”  You oppose harassment and rape, right?  So you better agree with us or you are a harasser or rape apologist.

Noted “equity feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers spoke at Oberlin College.  Ah, college.  The marketplace of ideas, where young people go to try out new thoughts and to figure out what they really believe after putting their deeply held moral codes under the scrutiny of others.

Not anymore.  As reported by Third Base Politics, Sommers was greeted with scorn.  “Trigger warnings” were issued.  Crimes such as “hate speech” were alleged.  Sommers and those who came to hear what she had to say were told they didn’t understand feminism, had internalized misogyny and that they were…get this…supporting rapists.

Well, it gets better.  Assistant Professor of Politics Jade Schiff tried to talk some sense into a colleague who wasn’t strident enough in his declaration that speech can be violent in the same manner as a hammer to the forehead.  Let’s break down her silly and dangerous letter to the editor:

Violence, sexual and otherwise, afflicts Oberlin as it does colleges and universities around the world, and our community needs to address it vigorously. But we won’t be able to do so effectively unless we know what we are talking about when we talk about violence. I’m not always sure that we do.

Those last two lines are a clear signal.  Dr. Schiff is going to redefine words.  What are we talking about when we talk about violence?  Whatever she wants us to believe.  (You’ll also note that she cadged the phrase from Raymond Carver, which leads me to believe that she hasn’t read any Raymond Carver.)

My colleague, Professor Copeland, responded forcefully last week to a previous letter objecting to Christina Hoff Sommers’ campus visit (“Free Speech Not Equivalent to Violence,” The Oberlin Review, April 24, 2015). In particular, he took issue with this line: “Her talk is happening, so let’s pull together in the face of this violence and make our own space to support each other” (“In Response to Sommers’ Talk: A Love Letter to Ourselves,” The Oberlin Review, April 17, 2015). He called this use of the word violence “irresponsible” because it collapses “the distinction between constitutionally protected speech and rape or other forms of sexual violence.”

This is summary of the situation.  Okay.  Fine.

I think Professor Copeland is missing something, but I also think the letter’s authors didn’t articulate their conception of violence clearly. Constitutionally protected speech can indeed be violent but not in same way that rape, sexual assault and related offenses are violent.

Speech can indeed be “violent” if we are using a watered-down definition of the word.  Could you consider Eminem’s vocal performance in “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” “violent?”

I suppose such a description could make sense if you equate “violence” with the forcefulness of his tone and his use of dynamics to create emotion.  So Eminem’s speech is “violent” in the same manner as Placido Domingo’s.  Dr. Schiff may not agree, but the only consequences to this kind of violence are sore eardrums if you sit too close to the speaker.

So Dr. Schiff is acknowledging that saying words and raping a man or a woman in the bushes at knifepoint are two different things.  But they’re not as different as we might think:

While Copeland recognizes violence in the offenses, the letter writers highlight violence in responses to victims. We might call the latter “discursive violence” because it attacks victims’ experiences and their descriptions of and reactions to those experiences.

Here’s the main thrust of the article.  Dr. Schiff accuses Dr. Sommers and people like her of a brand new kind of violence.  “Discursive violence.”  So now there’s “domestic violence,” “random acts of violence” and “discursive violence.”  The appropriation of the word “violence” is troubling and she knows that she’s performing a rhetorical magic trick.  We’re all against violence (unless we’re Salon writing about the Baltimore riots), so we will distrust Dr. Sommers because, deep down in our minds, we see that she has been accused of violence.  Very slick, Dr. Schiff.

We should also be troubled by Dr. Schiff’s assertions that “attacking victims’ experiences” and “reactions” is a form of violence.  What consequences does this have for law enforcement officers who are duty bound to gather facts that will later be considered by a judge or jury?  What does this mean for those judges and juries?  The authoritarian left keeps pushing for “personal testimony” to be synonymous with “truth” in the same embarrassing manner as someone reporting a Bigfoot sighting.

Without lifting a finger, discursive violence rejects theses experiences as inarticulate, unintelligible and illegitimate in the public sphere.

It’s interesting to point out the irony; Dr. Schiff claims that personal experiences should be trusted inviolate…in a letter concerning the personal experiences of Dr. Sommers.

Copeland himself points in this direction (though he likely meant it metaphorically) when he refers to “the unspeakable horror of sexual assault.” What makes it unspeakable, in part, is a public sphere that excludes, marginalizes or derides it.

In an entertaining act of either womansplaining or ventriloquism, Dr. Schiff clears up what her colleague was unable to say.  Dr. Copeland’s opinion, 99.9% in line with hers, was not good enough.  It is not enough to point out that sexual assault is an “unspeakable horror”–which it is, of course–but we must also bring the discussion back to the reason Dr. Sommers should not be allowed to speak in the first place: her research and her claims may or may not be correct, but they undermine radical feminism and must therefore be expunged from the public record.

So violence can be physical as well as discursive, and some would say that even this distinction is not very useful because the body is not separate from our experiences and our practices of meaning-making.

The structure of Dr. Schiff’s work is indeed solid; her last paragraph sums it all up for us.  See that “so?”  That “so” means that everything she has said can now be taken as a given.  Why bother thinking about it?  She has proven that “violence” can mean cutting someone into quarters with a chainsaw or questioning feminist orthodoxy.

Dr. Schiff also enters into a postmodern method of “meaning-making.” Unscrutinized beliefs and experiences can now represent “meaning.”  We can now use these “facts” to inform why we believe what we believe.  Again, she attempts to obliterate the English language to twist it to her needs in Orwellian fashion.

The point is that there are distinctions to be made, and unless we make them clearly, it is going to be hard to have the kinds of conversations necessary to make Oberlin an even more welcoming, thoughtful and vibrant community.

Dr. Schiff wisely asserts that she and her colleague (lukewarm as he is) should be in charge of the discussion at hand.  Dr. Schiff does not seem to be welcoming Dr. Sommers or others who may agree with her.  Or even those who may wish to hear her arguments.

Yes, my friends, I am a liberal left behind because I want to come into contact with ideas with which I disagree.  I want to be offended at times; such emotions protect me from the cognitive dissonance that will cripple many of those Oberlin protesters when they get into the real world.  Most of all, I abhor violence–real violence–and believe that rhetoric should be met with more rhetoric, not Orwellian accusations and a chorus of fingers-in-our-ears “la la la I can’t hear you.”  No matter how much privileged academics wish to redefine words, opposing ideas will never be the equivalent of actual violence.

59 thoughts on “Dear Academia: Opposing Views Are Not “Discursive Violence.”

  1. As a fellow liberal who has had it with the these kooky post-modernist, post-structuralist, post-rational, illiberal authoriatarians on the far left, I applaud your article.

    What I see here is a massive act of self-delusion and rationlization of dishonest behaviour. The rhetorical trick of “moral piggybacking” is as old as it is transparent and, sadly, quite common. “Sex offender” could be a child rapist or merely somebody caught urinating in an alley. “Predator” could be someone who lures young women into the sex trade or merely and older man looking at a younger woman in a skimpy outfit. Or, you know, an actual animal that eats other animals. “Terrorist” could be somebody that flies airplanes into buildings or a person who covers their face at a protest against government surveillance.

    As you well point out, these tactics are simple bait and switch manuevers. You bait the readers psyche using the word that triggers an existing emotional or moral outrage in the standard context, then switch the context for a new one. Now no need to build a moral opposition from scratch on its own merit; you can be lazy and piggyback moral outrage from a different merit.

    That this is the basis of such rhetorical tactics is all to clear. The real question is whether the people doing this are aware of that and are being overtly dishonest, or whether they are oblivious to their lazy dishonesty and have internally rationalized it to the point of believing their own bullshit.

    Even in the case where they are oblivious to their rationalization, they should still recognize that misusing words this way is a net harm in discourse because it reduces clarity rather than improves it. If I tell you I am a victim of violence, am I saying that I was beaten up or that somebody disagreed with my point of view or experience. Almost universally people would think the former, hence the “morality piggybacking”, but at best it will be unclear.

    Using the same word confuses and diffuses meanings. The more I know “sex offender” applies to people urinating in alleys, the less worried I am to find a neighbour on the registry. The more I know that “violence” applies to disagreeing speech, the less sympathetic I am to victims of “violence”. I have no reason to sympathize with “victims” of “discursive violence”. Hearing opposing views is healthy; protecting against it is harmful.

    In the end, such diffusion of mean only serves to diminish sympathy for real victims of violence, and for that Dr. Shiff and her ilk should be greatly ashamed.

    Liked by 8 people

    1. Thank you for your very intelligent and eloquent comment. You bring up a couple particularly important points:

      1) The conflation of terms is a vile and effective trick. The use of the term “sex offender” obscures the difference between a reprehensible criminal who rapes pre-teens and the man or woman who peed behind a dumpster in college. (Or a man who had sex with his girlfriend the week he turned 19 and she was still 17, etc.)

      2) You are absolutely right that this conflation, deliberate or not, obviates some of the sympathy that we have for victims of terrible crimes. Frankly, I resent that people like Dr. Schiff are seemingly trying to sap some of the great empathy I have for victims of sexual assault. If that “sexual assault” was someone driving past while listening to Howard Stern…I don’t care.

      I do wonder what will happen in the future as “outrage culture” wears itself out. As I will someday write, outrage has a half-life, as much as uranium or plutonium. Our culture can only drink bile for so long before we wear ourselves out and need some Gatorade.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. As long as moral piggybacking continues to work for these people, they’ll continue doing it. It’s a craven, anti-intellectual, authoritarian bag of flaming dog shit. But look on the bright side: Sooner or later, political correctness eats its own; so all of these unique snowflakes will eventually swallow their own tails.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Oh, make no mistake: I have been frustrated with Fox News for over a decade. I’m just sad that so many formerly reasonable people have followed the lead of the Tumblr generation and just blindly believe whatever Buzzfeed headlines tell them to think.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. My daughter graduated from a Christian university where she stood out by challenging some of her professors’ talking points. She has a habit of instigating discussion. She will be going to a state umiversity for her masters. I am uneasy about what will happen if she happens to snort at one of these linguistic inventions. Her BS radar is well tunedm

        Liked by 3 people

      4. Ann, that’s an interesting…dilemma, I suppose. If one attends a Christian university, I guess one knows what to expect. (Although I am well aware of, for example, the Jesuit tradition that is extremely open-minded with respect to free inquiry.)

        I don’t know if you agree, but I can imagine a professor being justifiably annoyed if your daughter took issue with some long-established matter of scientific orthodoxy. (The age of the Earth or something like that.) I am happy to assume that your daughter may have reasonable ideological differences with teachers in the same way I did. I suppose my unsolicited advice is to go along to get along until she has enough power to be honest. (Isn’t that sad?)


      5. Indeed, it is sad. That has been my advice to her as well. Stick to the business at hand, and keep your opinions to yourself if possible. A tough time to grow up in.


      6. The phrase “outrage culture” that you used describes the situation perfectly. Unfortunately, that culture not limited to entertainment media, but has seeped into news media, and finally, as illustrated here, into academic discussions. Case in point: an educated, intelligent person comes to the conclusion that talking about violence is equivalent to actually committing physical violence.

        This outrage culture is particularly troubling in the humanities, when extreme reactions are encouraged by a system looking to “challenge” young thinkers with “new perspectives” and “fresh viewpoints.” In a search for something that stirs up discussion, it seems that all too often, the only ideas which receive attention are the most outlandish, the strongest reaction-provokers. The “best” thinkers are the most inflammatory, not the most thoughtful.

        I can’t count how many round-table discussions I’ve yawned through in which the least-plausible, least-credible ideas are beat to death (pardon the expression) simply because they make ridiculous claims that run counter to good sense.

        I stand firmly on the side of discussing the merits of new ideas and fresh perspectives, and of respecting anyone who feels aggrieved by perceived violence in this case, but there must a common-sense limit to what claims are awarded so much attention. We have to sift the “outrage culture” from the new perspectives that actually have merit.

        One last note on this particular discussion: isn’t it funny that claims of “discursive violence” seem to, by definition, cut the legs from under (is that another discursively violent idiom?) criticism of that idea? Can anyone offer a counter-argument to it without being accused of committing exactly that crime?

        Perhaps the next step in this progression will be “thought violence,” in which harboring any ideas different than the norm will be offensive and reprehensible.


      7. Very interesting comments! Yes, I agree that many of the authoritarian left’s techniques are thinly veiled methods by which they can delegitimize valid criticism. For example, the complicated “privilege” equations that have replaced meaningful debate:

        Further, I think “hate crimes” are the current manifestation of “thoughtviolence.” An unpleasant thought (or one that is perceived to be unpleasant) becomes the crime itself.


  2. I think you are speaking from privilege whether it be white or patriarchal or both. The language you use has been a weapon against those you have oppressed for at least 400 years in the case of people of color and for millions of years since the evolution of sexes against women. Please check your privilege at the door before you ascend your ivory tower.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. I enjoy sharing ideas and engaging in rigorous debate and I don’t care about the gender or race of the person with whom I am in dialogue. Unlike those of the authoritarian left, I don’t think that a person’s race or gender should help determine the truth of what they say or factor into their right to participate.

        Liked by 3 people

      1. I actually dont give a shit. I just like scrolling through the freshly pressed posts to see who can exhaust their thesaurus before they blow their wad of idiotic platitudes

        Liked by 4 people

  3. I’m not in academia, so I fear that my response will not be at the same level as your post. This despite this, I have to thank you for your comment about those who must collect evidence when investigating a crime. Our criminal justice system is not designed to be perfect; it is designed to be as good as possible. We view (or are supposed to view) the accused as “innocent until proven guilty” because we think that it’s better than a guilty man go free than an innocent man go to jail. Those who would argue that violence=asking someone to give evidence to support a claim they’ve made would seemingly like our justice system to become “guilty until proven innocent” which it isn’t, and never should be.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Samantha, it’s true that it’s important to be precise with our language when discussing big ideas. I am more than happy to tell you that being “in academia” is NOT a requirement for contributing to our cultural discussions. The whole point of this country is that everyone is empowered to enter the cultural conversation, even if we can’t all have policy bent to our will. Your comment is well-written and I hope that you spend more time sharing ideas, even if we don’t agree 100% on everything.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Good points in the article. Here is my general view on this. Individual well meaning people of all different stripes have their ideas. Often times “opposing sides” might even agree more than they are told they do. I think the powers that be, the sort of 0.01% sociopathic chessboard movers come up with these plans to do exactly what you’re talking about. It would be hard to control people without it. Language is destroyed. Education is destroyed. Important issues are boiled down to soundbite nonsense. Groups are made up, and then pitted against each other. Linguistic tricks are passed down through government and media and think tanks. The “left” and the “right” have their special ones to keep people divided at home, then as you mention, special global Orwellian tricks are used to get all of us to unite behind dear government to back the latest war. The terms for war, torture, enemies, operations, basically everything, keeps changing. They make up new words, new meanings, even entirely new enemies. I don’t consider myself on the right or the left, but I appreciate your thoughts and admire you for thinking more independently than the typical left-right paradigm.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I honestly don’t think that Cleaning Out My Closet is violent at all. On the contrary, he says :”I’m sorry mama i never meant to hurt you”, he was probably offended when he was a child and i believe no sane person could bear the suffering that he faced when he was a child, but he did overcome all problems and this encourages us that “we can do it” and that eventually life goes on! Actually, we find violence in various films, pictures, or songs nowadays. It seems that taking advantage of violence nowadays is only meant to grab the audience’s attention!!


    1. Hadeel –

      Violence has ALWAYS been a part of literature! 🙂 David didn’t have tea with Goliath, did he? Beowulf isn’t about a relaxing weekend in the country!

      I can definitely see how “Cleaning Out My Closet” can be non-violent. When young people don’t have their needs met, we can’t expect them to know how to deal with problems. They’re going to sound angry because they are hurt. Frankly, I’d rather have young people make rap music than do any of the other things that can otherwise occupy a young person’s time.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow. Orwellian is right. Politics and the English Language in action. All these painfully twisted words come down to “We don’t like people to express opinions that undermine our radical ideology because reality is whatever we say it is. If you so much as imply that our ideology is flawed we will run you off our campus and accuse you of nasty things like being the discursive equivalent of a rapist.”


  7. Great article! A key reason I took early retirement was to get away from the Corporate American culture where dissent with the intention of making what we did better was viewed with alarm and disdain and positioned one as “not a team player.” We seem, as a culture, to be losing our grasp of dialectic in favor of TL;DR sensibility and interweb bubbles.

    Nuance is lost in such a polarized culture. We think on linear number lines where any step towards the “opposing side” is viewed as a loss for your side. But opinion is not a zero-sum game! If people can be taught to think multi-dimensionally, they can have, for example, strong opinions that guns are useful tools, but also that they are dangerous tools requiring training and regulation. One can have strong opinions that oppose and balance rather than oppose and cancel.


  8. Reblogged this on faithblog and commented:
    This blog-posting cuts to the core of how liberal tactics quash debate and attempt to assert a false authority over the marketplace of ideas.


  9. Loved your post. Especially this line-“She has proven that “violence” can mean cutting someone into quarters with a chainsaw or questioning feminist orthodoxy.”

    I agree completely. Liberalism has gone way too far with crazy ideas and mentalities like this which hypocritically do not allow for differences. Not okay. Have your own opinions and stop making up this bullshit.


  10. Reblogged this on VANGLED and commented:
    Wow, I didn’t know that this could happen at a place where doctors are involved and to think just because you oppose an idea of the other person.

    People complicate more things as time progresses and label it with complex uncommon words where no one can understand it at once.


  11. I enjoyed your essay. I’ll have to read more, but I appreciated your premise. I’m weary of being told what to think and then if I disagree, I’m labeled as a hater. I wish people would either present their views and then have the courage to talk about it or be quiet. I don’t actually wish to stifle anyone, we all have the right of idiocy, but be willing to debate or have the decency to hold your peace. If we could all debate principles and ideas without screaming mental rape the world would be a better place.


  12. This is just an excellent article! So often we are told that right and left, red and blue, cannot agree with each other ideologically. Yet, here I am, the self-appointed conscience to American conservatives everywhere, agreeing with everything you have written. Goes to show that the labels “Liberal American” or “Conservative American” only have one important word in them: American! We all have something common within us and most of us realize that our most important right is the right to free speech. That is one thing that we can not let die. I will be following. Bravo!


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