Words Are Not Violence

April 12, 2019 Updated: April 12, 2019


“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” The saying conveys to a child who feels hurt an ancient distinction between physical and emotional injury.

The point, common to Stoic philosophy, Buddhism, and modern Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, isn’t the literal one that words can never harm you. Words may, in given circumstances, damage your reputation, raise your blood pressure to harmful levels, and so on. But except for well-known cases, such as shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater, they usually don’t lead immediately to physical injury.

Words are not violence, even if they do harm you. The point of the sticks and stones saying is to comfort children and give them a way to respond, mentally and verbally, to insults, taunts, and put-downs. It teaches the important life lesson that such slights are part of life. Our dignity does not depend on what others think of us, as we show by not overreacting to such behavior—whether intentionally upsetting or not.

As we grow in virtue and maturity, we develop perspective. We learn, in the words of attorney Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, not to “view disagreements, unintentional slights, or even direct insults as threats to our dignity that must always be met with a response.”

Victimhood Culture

In their recent, important book, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Lukianoff and Haidt thus distinguish the “dignity culture,” in which young people learn to deal with slights without overreacting to them from the older “honor culture,” where a small insult may lead to a duel.

Their main argument, though, is about the “victimhood culture” that has risen to precedence on college campuses and beyond with the iGeneration (iGen) or Generation Z, those born in and after 1995. In this case, they argue, paranoid overreaction by “helicopter parents” with exaggerated fears for the children’s safety, reinforced by educational administrators and a “bureaucracy of safetyism,” is among the factors creating a “victimhood culture” in this generation.

Safety once meant physical safety. Now, there’s a language of emotional safety, in which students expect to feel safe from upsetting ideas or views with which they disagree, even from ancient literature and myths that might trigger emotional distress—or “trauma” where that word, too, has expanded from the physical, as in blunt-force trauma, to the emotional or mental.

To keep today’s more sensitive, psychologically vulnerable students feeling safe, even from unintended slights now labeled “microaggressions,” administrators erect a whole bureaucratic apparatus of trigger warnings, safe spaces, and disciplinary processes. Systems for anonymous reporting of fellow students, faculty, and staff, elicit intervention by “bias response teams.” Teaching evaluations ask students to assess their instructors’ sensitivity and “inclusiveness,” and so on.

In such ways, the ever-expanding academic bureaucracy “supports” students in ways that make them less resilient and more anxious, depressed, morally dependent on their elders. Students come to rely on authorities to resolve problems, and, as Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning explain in the journal Comparative Sociology, “as people come to depend on law alone, their willingness or ability to use other forms of conflict management may atrophy.”

This is the condition of grade school children who, when teased, immediately go to an adult, crying, “Make him stop!” Wise adults teach the child the “sticks and stones” saying. They encourage children, where possible, to sort out their differences and conflicts on their own so that the young can grow in resilience, problem-solving, and maturity.

Violence is a key term in the victimhood culture. Like trauma and safety, it has expanded its meaning to include non-physical affronts or harms.

Actual physical violence, say in physically preventing an invited speaker from giving a lecture on campus, is now routinely defended as self-defense against the “violence” of the speaker’s ascribed position on something, even when it’s not the subject of the intended presentation. The harm attributed to targeted speakers and their positions is wildly inflated.

Heather Mac Donald, a political essayist and attorney, argued that the Black Lives Matter movement with its relentless criticism and surveillance of police, has had the paradoxical and unintended side effect of making black neighborhoods less safe. It made police less willing to enter and actively engage in minority neighborhoods, “thereby leaving the people in those neighborhoods less protected and more vulnerable to crime,” according to Lukianoff and Haidt.

Claiming Victimhood to Justify Violence

In 2017, rather than join the lively national debate about Mac Donald’s thesis, student activists at Pomona College in California sought to make it undiscussable, condemning Mac Donald as a racist and fascist when she came to give a talk at the college. Allowing her to present her thesis would be allowing “violence” on campus. “Engaging with her, a white supremacist fascist supporter of the police state,” asserted three of the students in response to a statement about free speech by their college president, “is a form of violence.”

This strategy of denouncing peaceful expression of disapproved opinions as a form of violence—and justifying the use of violence to shut it down—isn’t new to campus radicals. The question of “free speech for fascists” was a contentious one on the Berkeley campus where the Free Speech Movement formed in the 1960s. The movement demanded free speech, uncontrolled by the university administration, not its restriction by the authorities to those holding approved views.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took a strong position in support of free speech for those expressing unpopular minority opinions, however obnoxious it found those views. The ACLU came in for strong criticism from the defenders of “free speech for radicals” on campus. The latter, those who opposed “free speech for fascists,” however, did not call on the state or the university authorities to suppress the fascists, but sought to confront them physically themselves. (They recognized that granting the state or the administration enhanced powers to suppress the expression of unpopular views could as easily be used to silence them in the future.)

Like today’s activists, they also argued that speech could be a form of violence that required a physically violent response to suppress. They even saw disparities of life expectancy between classes or races as a form of “institutionalized violence” that justified revolutionary violence against “the system.” But they did not look to a paternalistic administration or police power to silence the fascists or racists, real or imagined, whom they sought to stifle.

In the victimhood culture of today’s iGen, on the other hand, activists use their hurt feelings and fears as weapons to shame and silence those who offend them in any way, however slight. Often some of the most privileged young people in the world and students at the most liberal and elite universities, they demand that the administration fire such miscreants, often themselves well-meaning lifetime liberals.

Lukianoff and Haidt provide many telling examples of such student outrage and of the spineless failure of administrations to defend their faculty. These iGen radicals may seem coddled and immature, like overprotected children, and they are often denounced as such.

But they do real harm to those they attack, to the learning environment of other students, and to themselves.

Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawai‘i and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is” and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.