When Speech Is Violence – Free Speech vs. Safe Space

Can speech be an act of violence? Perhaps, when it comes in the form of threats or intimidation. If you want to stretch it, you could possibly include such things as profanity, obscenity, or disparaging comments. What about an opinion? Can that be construed as violent?

You may or may not have seen the recently publicized videos of Yale University students confronting Nicholas Christakis, the former master of Yale’s Silliman College. The videos were recorded last fall, after his wife, Erika Christakis, urged students not to take offense at insensitive Halloween costumes.

The behavior that had the students so agitated: Nicholas sided with his wife, agreeing that students did not need the university to tell them how to dress for Halloween.

All debate about Halloween costumes aside, as an adult person with the capacity to reason, I found these videos deeply disturbing. Although there are several sources for the videos, for purposes of clarity, the following comments refer to the clips posted on the Hit & Run blog at Reason.com. The four videos totaling around 24 minutes were recorded by Greg Lukianoff, president of Foundation for Individual Rights for Education.

At the opening of the first video clip, the viewer is presented with the scene of a lone man surrounded by several dozen students. Literally encircled by them, Christakis stood and listened to the complaints of the students. Repeatedly, the students shouted him down, while he tried to respond to the concerns of each one. The crowd grew deeper, more densely packed, louder and more agitated.

A number complained that he didn’t know their names. Because knowing the names, faces and personal habits of 500 students had clearly not been his top priority for the entire 2-month period Christakis had held the position. He explained that this was a personal deficiency, and had nothing to do with race. (It seems this is an issue, because many of the students are people of color and Christakis is not.) “It seems that way,” he was told. When he pointed out that people have different skillsets, and that he also lacked musical ability, the crowd didn’t want to hear it.

The accusations and complaints made by the students against Christakis included “stripping people of their humanity,” and not listening (This is after 20 minutes of just the part that was recorded.); “What you did was create a space for violence to happen, “Your wife never invited me anywhere,” from an aide; “Lisa left bawling because you couldn’t say sorry,” although he had; “Let us tell you if you’re being racist.” What? The students have the ability to see into the hearts of men and know their inner feelings?

When Christakis tried to return to a student he had been speaking to after an interruption, saying, “I don’t want to ignore her,” another voice from the crowd admonished, “You don’t need to maintain the power in the situation.” Watching the video made that statement particularly ironic, as by then the crowd surrounding Christakis had grown to a hundred or more.

One student shouted out, “It is not about creating an intellectual space.” It’s not? Isn’t that precisely why we come to college, to learn new things, to have our experiences broadened, to be introduced to perspectives that are different from the ones we have always known, for intellectual growth?

Another student accused Christakis of gaslighting. According to Urban Dictionary, gaslighting is “A form of intimidation or psychological abuse, sometimes called Ambient Abuse where false information is presented to the victim, making them doubt their own memory, perception and quite often, their sanity. The classic example of gaslighting is to switch something around on someone that you know they are sure to notice, but then deny knowing anything about it, and to explain that they ‘must be imagining things’ when they challenge these changes.” I’m not sure how that applies here.

Apologies were demanded, and Christakis gave them. “I’m sorry for hurting your feelings,” he said. When that didn’t satisfy the mob, he tried again, “I’m sorry for causing you pain.” That was still not good enough. Christakis asked how the students would prefer he word his apology. Someone from the crowd shouts out, “an act of violence.” Really, violence?

Throughout this ordeal, Christakis was calm and reasonable, long after most people would have walked away, and far past the point where many would have escalated the situation. He was candid about times when he has “stepped in it,” and apologized for his fallibility. He listened to them all patiently, tried to address their concerns, and stood unflinching in the face of screaming, hysteria, demands, and even intimidation and implied threats from students who stepped into his personal space, got up into his face.

One speaker refused to shake his hand, accused him of having a smirk on his face, and went on a 3-minute tirade about how disgusted she was. “All I see from you is arrogance and ego,” she spat at him as she thrust a finger in his face repeatedly. He stood and listened. He let her have her say for almost two minutes before he attempted to respond, saying, “It’s my turn now.” Again with the finger in his face, the student replied, “Sir, do not do it. This is not the day. You do not want to play this game with me. Do you understand what I’m saying?” She continued, “You want free dialogue, you want free speech? This is how it works.”

Yes, apparently this is how it works. These students seem to have the idea that free speech means that they, and only they, should be permitted to speak freely, and in any manner they like, while any dissenting opinion is, in their eyes, “an act of violence.” It makes me fear for the future of my country.

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