Friday, March 22, 2013
Speech as an Act of Violence
In my midterm research I came across an article by June Jordan, a bisexual Caribbean-American writer and scholar who lived from 1936-2002. The article, “On the Occasion of a Clear and Present Danger at Yale” (link located at the bottom of this post), though short, is a poignant account of an incident that occurred while she taught at Yale. In a weekend that was meant to be spent as a fundraiser for Jordan's “The Yale Attica Defense Group”, a student and faculty sponsored group meant to bring attention to and raise money for people affected by war, abuse and violence, Yale invited William Shockley to visit the campus, “. . . an expert who was offering allegedly scientific justification for racist ideas, such as the genetic inferiority of Black people and the consequently desirable sterilization of minority women” (90). Jordan not only refused to debate this man, but rallied with several of Yale's Black students in protest of the invitation, in the hopes that Yale would come to its senses and rescind the invite.
Her argument against Shockley is a controversial one. Yale defended the invitation of Shockley on the grounds of being an open forum, and a proponent of freedom of speech. Jordan counters by saying that freedom of speech is “the misbegotten propaganda propagated by our enemies” and that Shockley's speech “points to a far more fundamental issue. It is the issue of life against death . . . Next to that fundamental freedom, the freedom to be alive and to perpetuate our own lives, the what is something called the Freedom of Speech?” (93) I've interpreted this as meaning that Shockley's ideas of violence towards Black people and minority women are so violent in nature that they threaten Jordan's very existence, as a minority and as a woman. Jordan goes on to say that Yale, by accepting this man into their midst, has also claimed responsibility for the violence of his message.
Jordan's argument is one that goes directly against primary school morality, and the mainstream conception of freedom of speech and what constitutes a violent act. At what point does freedom of speech become a front for hate groups and hate crimes? To what extent should we, as human beings and not just robotic extensions of the state, allow others to spew a violence made of words? I have had many heated debates since reading this article with friends who lambast any idea that speech can constitute an act of violence, and it always comes down to the question of whether Jordan is justified in thinking that William Shockley's speech was a clear and present danger to the bodily well being of minorities. I would say he does, but my arguments can only be made through empathy, not the sterility of a logical debate.
I would really like to hear the opinions of the class on this matter, which is why I posted it to the blog, though I recognize just how hard it is to discuss. Do you believe Yale should have invited Shockley? Do you believe that Shockley's speech was one that threatens others right to life?
Note: There are a few pages missing on the Google Books link, but if you search the article on Aladdin through the Gelman website you should be able to find the whole article.