“Silence is violence” has everything that you want in a slogan: Alliteration. Brevity. Simplicity. It also can be chilling for some in the academic and free-speech communities.
On one level, it conveys a powerful message that people of good faith should not remain silent about great injustices. However, it can have a more menacing meaning to “prove the negative” – demanding that people prove they are not racist.
In a prior column, I warned of the thin line between speech codes and speech commands, as people move from compelling silence to compelling speech:
“Once all the offending statues are down, and all the offending professors are culled, the appetite for collective suppression will become a demand for collective expression.”
The line between punishing speech and compelling speech is easily crossed when free speech itself is viewed as a threat. It is not just the many cases of journalists, academics and others fired for expressing dissenting views. Even expressing support in the wrong way can be a terminal offense, like declaring “all lives matter” rather than “Black Lives Matter,” as in the firing of University of Massachusetts-Lowell Dean of Nursing Leslie Neal-Boylan or Vermont principal Tiffany Riley. While most of us support Black Lives Matter, it has become an official position of many schools — and variations are not tolerated. The concern is not only the establishment of orthodox values but the forced recitation of those values.
We are now seeing that fear realized.
This week, a mob surrounded diners outside several Washington restaurants, shouting “White silence is violence!” and demanding that diners raise a fist to support Black Lives Matter. Various diners dutifully complied as protesters screamed inches from their faces. One did not — Lauren Victor, who later said she has marched in protests for weeks but refused to be bullied. The mob surrounded her, and Washington Post reporter Fredrick Kunkle identified a freelance journalist as one of the people yelling at Victor and demanding: “What was in you, you couldn’t do this?”
It is the very mantra of orthodoxy: Failing to utter certain words, prayers or pledges is deemed a confession of complicity or guilt.
That demand for public affirmation was on display again Thursday when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and his wife were threatened by a mob after leaving the final event of the Republican National Convention. The couple was ordered to “Say Her Name,” referring to Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician shot by police in Louisville, Ky. Notably, some media suggested the mob did not know who Paul was; they just demanded that he say the name if he wanted to pass.
Forced speech can occur in a variety of direct and indirect ways. The University of Southern Maine’s president, Glenn Cummings, proclaimed “we must never tire of declaring that Black Lives Matter” and asked students and faculty to add their names to a public anti-racism pledge. After objections, the school said it would keep the list non-public. The concern was that some faculty and students may not support Black Lives Matters as an organization, or have other disagreements with the pledge — yet, failure to be on the list would indicate they are racist, or at least not sufficiently anti-racist.
The University of California issued a “guidance document” requiring students to reject racism, sexism, xenophobia and all hateful or intolerant speech, including a mandate that students stop others from referring to the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus.” While the use of those terms is controversial, it also is heavily laden with political meaning for people on both sides of the debate over the pandemic.
Syracuse University moved more directly not just to bar but to require some forms of speech. Professor Keith Alford, the university’s diversity and inclusion officer, declared students would be punished for simply witnessing “bias-motivated” incidents and “acts of hate.” That was a response to a student group’s demand for expulsion of “individuals who witnessed the event or were present, but did not take part.”
The transition from speech codes to commands is based on the same notion of “speech as harm.” Just as speech is deemed harmful (and thus subject to regulation), silence is now deemed harmful. UC Berkeley Law Professor Savala Trepczynski, executive director of the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice, wrote that “White silence is incredibly powerful … It’s not neutral. It acts like a weapon.” It is certainly not unreasonable to call out others for not supporting important causes. Indeed, I have criticized faculty for remaining silent as colleagues were attacked or fired for voicing dissent about systemic racism, police abuse or other subjects. However, once both speech and silence are deemed as equally harmful, individuals are subject to public demonstrations of faith and fealty.
Even being insufficiently alert can result in demands for termination. Nearly 2,000 people signed a petition to fire Marymount Manhattan theater arts associate professor Patricia Simon after she appeared to fall asleep briefly during an anti-racist meeting held on Zoom. Student Caitlin Gagnon started a petition which accused Simon of “ignoring … racist and sizeist actions and words of the vocal coaches under her jurisdiction.” The message seems clear: You cannot be woke if you are not awake.
The concern over speech codes becoming speech commands would have been viewed as utterly absurd just a few years ago. Now, even calls for civility in dialogue have been denounced as racist dog whistles. Trinity College professor Johnny Williams condemned those who call for civility as “uphold[ing] white supremacist heteropatriarchal capitalist power.” When MSNBC host Joe Scarborough criticized those confronting people at restaurants and called for civility, University of Mississippi Professor James Thomas denounced civility and declared: “Don’t just interrupt a senator’s meal, y’all. Put your whole damn fingers in their salads.”
It is the ultimate expression of entitlement: People either must conform to your values or face public condemnation and threats.
Your salad is no more inviolate than your speech.
In a world where silence is violence and civility is complicity, there is little room for true free speech.