The Crux of Modern PC Sophistry: The False Equivocation of Violence and Speech

As most people are aware, there has been a recent (within the past few years) surge on American college campuses in the creation of and request for “safe spaces” in which certain topics of discussion are verboten and dissent of certain forms is prohibited.

These “safe spaces” accompany “trigger warnings” and “de-platforming” among neo-PC tactics designed to quash opinions which are considered not only disagreeable or wrong, but downright violent.

This attempt to expand the concept of violence to include the expression of opinions which one may even contend can lead to irrational acts of actual violence (e.g. a speech which condemns homosexuality as immoral could be drawn upon as justification by individuals who would stalk, assault, or even murder homosexuals) is, itself, dangerous.  It is simply not true that speech is violent; violence refers to the use of physical force against someone or something.  This is a distinction which has long been held as important by civilized society, referenced in even the old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  It is a mark of maturity to recognize the distinction between violence and speech, and to give wide opportunity for the latter and narrow permission for the former.

Of course, there is such a thing as hurtful speech.  It is a different kind of hurt from physical violence, but it can cause mental anguish nonetheless, and this is important.  It is immoral to groundlessly insult others.  It is immoral to harass others.  It is to behave in the manner of undisciplined children and it should be called out for being what it is.  We of a civilized society ought not to sit idly by while others act in such a way.

But, seemingly dissatisfied with the extent of opposition to this behavior afforded by reason, the modern PC movement rests, perhaps primarily, on an attempt to falsely equivocate between violence and unpalatable speech.  Just take a look at the following crucial excerpt from the recent faculty letter written in response to the University of Chicago’s letter to the incoming class of 2020 which informs the class, in part:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

This is a strike back at exactly what has been discussed above: de-platforming, safe spaces, and trigger warnings.  Now take a look at the following crucial excerpt from the recent faculty letter written in response to that letter:

The history of “safe spaces” goes back to gay, civil rights, and feminist efforts of the mid–20th century to create places protected from quite real forces of violence and intimidation. They also served as incubators of new ideas away from the censure of the very authorities threatened by these movements. It would be naïve to think that the University of Chicago is immune from social problems. Yet the administration confusingly disconnects “safe spaces” it supports (see the list of mentoring services on the College’s own website) from “intellectual safe spaces” that it does not, as if issues of power and vulnerability stop at the classroom door.

In this excerpt, the faculty plainly and falsely equate the actual violence and intimidation (using the threat of violence) against black Americans during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the “issues of power and vulnerability” within a college classroom.

This may seem to be frivolous nit-picking when the discussion is honed down to a single example, but it is representative of a large scale problem.  Just Googling about in today’s news will quickly skim examples for anyone curious to see them.  This false equivocation is pervading modern discussion, often injected by means of reference to some actual immoral behavior (see the examples link above) in order to quell dissent.  Who would want to argue a technical point when a person has committed suicide in a desperate attempt to escape humiliating harassment?  Who would want to defend the harassers from allegations of violence?

But the technical point is important.  The truth is important.  And the truth does not fail to satisfy, for though its recognition brings clarity which prevents error, it does not exonerate the immoral.  Though they are not guilty of violence, those who coerce suicide through harassment are despicable.  We need no false equivocation to understand this.  Though we must treat them differently from those who are violent, those who berate and insult others remain guilty of their immorality.

Losing sight of this distinction, we are now at a risk in our culture of turning to serious error.  For, if these are genuinely equivalent issues, the violent opposition faced by black Civil Rights activists of the 1960s and the trials and tribulations of modern college classroom discussion, then one is forced to accept that one who believes, for example, that homosexuality is immoral, is doing the same thing as committing violence against homosexuals by even respectfully expressing this belief.  This is the premise on which the neo-PC movement relies for its arguments in favor of so-called “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.”  Beyond the usual consideration for others which is required of those participating in civil discussions (e.g. one shall not harass, nor insult, nor berate an interlocutor, particularly in discussions revolving around the morality of such an interlocutor’s life), the neo-PC wants to argue that beliefs which run against a certain subset of decisions or behaviors which have been declared off-limits by the neo-PC must not be expressed, lest this constitute an act of violence.

If this false equivalence is accepted, then of course it is equally as legitimate to prohibit a person from speaking to an audience as it is to prohibit a person from physically assaulting that audience.  This is how the neo-PC is attempting to force agreement with their often obviously wrongheaded ideals.  They have abandoned the use of reason, for such a path will not lead them to their intended destination; it will not free them from their duty to entertain, and even endure, dissent and critique, so they instead move to categorize all who disagree with them as violent aggressors from whom they must be protected.

It is difficult to argue against the neo-PC crowd and simultaneously lead them from their confusion.  This group has a serious slave mentality about them where victimhood is prized above all as an unassailable platform from which to hold any number of opinions with which others are compelled to agree.  Sometimes people who have endured actual victimhood at the hands of abusers or violent criminals find their homes within this group and, misled though they are, the issue is made murkier by their genuine suffering.  “You can’t tell me my trauma doesn’t matter,” they will scream.  “You can’t tell me how I ought to feel,” will be hurled at every opportunity.

But, of course, the fact is that people can overvalue things.  They can place unwarranted emphasis on things.  Their feelings can be wrong.  Their opinions can be wrong.  Their opinions about their feelings can be wrong.  And those who are actual victims do not triumph over their aggressors by living the rest of their lives cowering at anything which threatens to remind them of their past.  It is not easy to overcome legitimate hardship or come to terms with one’s own deficiencies, particularly when one is put in a particularly strenuous situation, but an answer to this difficulty the neo-PC has not.

And mankind has already treaded this ground.  It has long been established that there is an important distinction between objectivity and subjectivity, and it is the personal responsibility of every person to recognize and bring the latter into alignment with the former where necessary.  My subjective inclinations are no basis for the condemnation or oppression of others who disagree with them.  My personal hardship and sensitivities do not make microaggressors out of those around me.  To live together harmoniously and productively, we have to become capable of understanding how to reconcile our emotions and other often arational, or even irrational, inclinations with objective facts.

And this is what the neo-PC is fighting.  They want an impossible world in which they are free from critique (which they fear as much as violence), for they have established by fiat the areas of their lives for which critique is off-limits.  They do not see that, even were they to be granted permission to continue with their misguided venture, they would eventually collide with one another as their rising numbers would make the incompatibility of their irrational dictates less easily ignored.  We are all subject to objective reasoning not because our subjectivity is without value, but because, at the very least, its incommensurability with reason threatens unsustainable discord.  A civilized society simply cannot exist on the basis of governance with subjective whim for its basis.

We all have our struggles with civilization; at times, it seems it is everywhere a conspiracy against the individual.  But a studious and curious mind is compelled to admit of its benefits and the capabilities bestowed upon us which, in its absence, would be impossible to come by.  And it is only because of these invaluable consequences of civilized society that discussion of this neo-PC phenomenon is possible at all.  Its defeat is necessary to sustain the systems which provide the very opportunity for its entertainment.

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