To the Editors:
I’m writing to address both of the letters the Review published last week in response to my earlier comments about the generic distinction between “speech” and “violence” (“Violence Requires Multiple Definitions” and “Silencing Survivors Results in Violence,” The Oberlin Review, May 1, 2015). My colleague Jade Schiff argues that the difference between speech and violence is not as absolute as I maintain. She writes, “Constitutionally protected speech can indeed be violent but not in the same way that rape, sexual assault and related offenses are violent.” If Professor Schiff is merely arguing that speech can be both hateful and hurtful, I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, one of the problems with the old adage about stick and stones is that it glosses over this fact (“Sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt you”). The second half of that “truism” is manifestly untrue. Of course words can hurt you. Think of the sheer number of people who have attempted suicide after hearing five simple, but constitutionally protected, words: “I don’t love you anymore.” And when it comes to verbal expression that is not protected by the First Amendment, there are many forms of speech that can elicit violence: “Incitements to riot,” for example, or utterances that generate a “clear and present danger” (such as yelling “fire” in a crowded theater). Even less dramatic forms of speech can lead to violence: If I hire someone to kill another person, my speech becomes a form of action, which “causes” the death of that person. And in the eyes of the law, I’m as guilty of premeditated murder as the individual I hired to carry out the act.
But — and this is really the heart of my response to Professor Schiff — the fact that speech can cause violence does not mean that speech is violence. Granted, I’m using the word “violence” in a strictly limited sense, as a noun. The distinctions I’m upholding begin to evaporate the moment one employs the word as an adjective (e.g. “violent speech” or “violent images”). But I was very careful in my letter to avoid using the word “violence” as either a modifier or a metaphor. And in this regard, Professor Schiff fundamentally misunderstands the context in which I referred to “the unspeakable violence of sexual assault.” I meant this literally, not metaphorically. The earliest clinical studies of those who have been
“traumatized” by acts of violence (either as civilians or as soldiers) emphasize how often these individuals are rendered literally (not figuratively) speechless. And it’s precisely because I don’t want to diminish or demean the experience of those who’ve been clinically traumatized that I objected so vehemently to the following statement about Christina Hoff Sommers in the group-written letter of April 17: “Her talk is happening, so let’s pull together in the face of this violence” (“In Response to Sommers’ Talk: A Love Letter to Ourselves, The Oberlin Review, April 17, 2015). The reason I described the violence of sexual assault as “unspeakable” is because I regard violence as the opposite of speech. Violence destroys not only speech but the ability to speak. Christina Hoff Sommers’ wordsarenot—inanyway—aformof violence, no matter how uncomfortable they make some readers (or listeners) feel. But they are … her words, and among the many things that have been all but ignored in this controversy are the words Ms. Sommers has actually published in books such as Who Stole Feminism? What follows is what I take to be a representative passage:
“Battery and rape are crimes that shatter lives; those who suffer must be cared for, and those who cause their suffering must be kept from doing further harm. But in all we do to help, the most loyal ally is truth. Truth brought to public light recruits the best of us to work for change. On the other hand, even the best-intentioned ‘noble lie’ ultimately discredits the finest cause.”
Christina Hoff Sommers is not a right-wing, hatemongering provocateur like Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter. The heart of her argument is not that rape doesn’t exist but that its frequency on campuses like Oberlin has been exaggerated. For those who take issue with her statistical analysis, the appropriate response is not to vilify or threaten the individuals who invited her to campus but rather to have confronted her during the vigorous question and answer, which followed her talk. Unfortunately, the anonymous author of the second letter written in response to my comments has chosen to bypass reasoned argument altogether in favor of intimidation and threats. Even more unfortunate is the fact that the current climate on campus is more accurately reflected by this letter than by Professor Schiff’s. Oberlin — it seems to me — is at a crossroads. Many of us on the faculty have come to fear that we can no longer function as responsible educators in this chilly (indeed, chilling) environment. These two letters represent two fundamentally different “roads” that we, as a community, can travel: We can attempt to suppress controversial speech, prevent it from “happening” in the first place, or we can engage with it in a thoughtful, reasoned way.
– Roger Copeland
Professor of Theater and Dance