Words Do Hurt, But Debate Protects Victims

By Graham Peterson

Free speech defenders have made the point again and again — sticks and stones break bones but words can’t hurt you. You have the right to say what you want up to actually violent words like, “I’m going to shoot you.” We are obliged to protect people from physical harm, but we have no duty to protect them from psychic harm.

The trouble is, words do hurt. So opponents of speech enjoy the moral high ground. If you support free speech, you’re a meanie. Speech advocates need to deal better with that argument. It’s only becoming more common as the social justice movement, a movement that sees the world divided neatly into meanies and victims, grows.

The sticks and stones argument is popular, maybe, not for philosophical reasons, but because it’s expedient. It’s dismissive. “LOL @ ur safe space.” The opposition won’t be so simply dismissed. It believes that ideas are just as hurtful as real violence, or lead directly to it.  In this view, it is no metaphor to talk about some speech as “safe” and other speech as “unsafe.” Gay bashing becomes gay suicide. Misogyny, rampage shootings.

Let’s listen harder.

Think about what it’s like to be a victim of abuse, a person who feels her dignity withered, who has suffered violent ramifications from ideas. How would you, then, react to, “sorry, but no. Free speech is sacred.” It’s dogmatic and insensitive. And often these days, that kind of ideological insult is exactly what activists are complaining about. Advocates would do well not to assume the role of the oppressive meanie.

So, “if you ain’t bleedin’ you ain’t hurt,” is not the way to convince people that defenders of inquiry are on the side of tolerance and wellbeing.

Advocates can make a different case. They can freely concede the minor premise, that ideas are hurtful, and maintain the major, that speech is sacred. They can concede that ideas make violence, that ideas damage people’s self esteem, or that they infect the subconscious minds of oppressors, such that oppressors inadvertently discriminate. That’s worth the cost. Because ideas, a sacred contest of ideas, is still the best way to protect victims.

These people are not wrong. Feelings and ideologies, it turns out, are real. Ideologies do have material and sometimes violent consequences.  Marxism caused mass starvation and bloodshed in 20th century Russia and China. Misogyny causes rape on 21st century college campuses. It was precisely the recognition of the gravity of ideas that compelled J.S. Mill to argue for an open contest. Ideas are the rage and insult behind the sticks and stones. They hurt.

So everyone here: Mill, speech advocates, speech critics — everyone agrees that ideas and speech are hefty, important things. Why drive one another away? What an opportunity! Speech advocates have to recognize, respect, and convey that they are listening, that there might be a kernel of legitimacy in left ideologies.  They just want to be listened to, too — that’s all free inquiry is.  That’s the classical liberal bargain.  You listen to me; I listen to you; we both walk away with different ideas (if only at their margins).

In giving up on, “ideas are just flimsy things anyway,” speech advocates can maintain the really important point, that ideas contests produce the best possible ideas. Debates over theories lead to debates over the best evidence to prove those theories.  Evidence gets better on both sides.  Confirmation biases get checked.  We learn to tolerate and respect and enjoy one another for—and not just in spite of—our differences.

At bottom, people who want to delimit speech these days are just trying to protect victims. But open inquiry is the best chance victims have of asserting their dignity and improving their outcomes.  That is the point we have to make: words do matter, so, so much, because free and open inquiry protects victims. The person who cares the most about victims should be the first in line to contend with bad ideas.


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