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.