Violence Requires Multiple Definitions

Jade Schiff, Assistant Professor of Politics

To the Editors:

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.

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.”

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

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 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.

Jade Schiff

Assistant Professor of Politics