My column today was about a new survey of 1,500 undergraduates and their views on speech issues. The most alarming finding was the response to a question about whether it’s acceptable to use violence to silence a speaker known for making “offensive and hurtful statements.” One in five students said it is.
This made me think of a passage from Brookings scholar Jonathan Rauch‘s “Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.” It’s an excellent (and short!) book, one I recommend to anyone interested in speech issues — and particularly in how a societal commitment to the free exchange of ideas helps rather than hurts vulnerable minority groups. Anyway, here’s the passage:
A University of Michigan law professor said: “To me, racial epithets are not speech. They are bullets.” This, finally, is where the humanitarian line leads: to the erasure of the distinction, in principle and ultimately in practice, between discussion and bloodshed. My own view is that words are words and bullets are bullets, and that it is important to keep this straight. For you do not have to be Kant to see what comes after “offensive words are bullets”: If you hurt me with words, I reply with bullets, and the exchange is even. Rushdie hurt fundamentalists with words; his book was every bit as offensive to them as any epithet or slogan you can imagine. So they set out to hurt him back. Words are bullets; fair is fair.