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.  


  1. I'm going to be rather blunt; the majority of White people tend to only react to racist or discriminatory actions or practices when it infringes on their own power or existence and therefore it is no surprise to me that Yale would even consider hosting Shockley. In terms of free speech rights, it gets confusing. For me, if we are restricted from sedition, but free to offend and suggest the extermination of a race through the sterilization of minority women is permissible, then I hang my head in shame to be an American. It sounds like Hitler. It sounds like apartheid. Presenting these ideas to a group of intellectuals would serve what purpose if they did not agree with his ideas, and Yale acted in favor of the ideas. It's scary for ME to live in this country where racism is hidden behind rights to free speech and intellect.

  2. Well here we go into murky territory, but I'll take a stab at it.

    First, I think it's a mistake to say that white people only react to discriminatory actions when it infringes on their own power/existence. I think there's a pretty large population out there who, like Becca expressed in her post, feel a pretty general empathetic response towards any form of discrimination towards any group and would be fundamentally opposed. I think a more valid argument that could be made is that the protection of a 1st Amendment Right, though important, results in the defense of system established under an institutionally white-privileged viewpoint, and the attempt to somehow produce racial equality from that legal standard results in imperfect application.

    Something else that it is important to state in this particular case is that "clear and present danger" is not the only standard by which we judge the application of free speech. There has been a strong shift towards more lenient regulation of speech and more exceptional treatment in free speech cases. While the 1st Amendment does not protect "fighting words," because they do nothing but harm (decided in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire), it would protect the usage of those words in the case where they are communicating ideas (as opposed to just eliciting a response).

    Free speech application gets even more ambiguous when it comes to universities. In Doe v. Michigan the court struck down regulations on speech because the policy was too broad, but in RAV v. St. Paul, the city of St. Paul was found to apply too narrow of speech regulations. At universities, there is a responsibility of universities to provide a certain atmosphere, and some would argue that free speech inhibits the students' ability to have a proper University experience. Free speech law would say that we cannot stop free speech just because it is offensive, because we cannot restrict someone's ability to express an idea that is sought to be conveyed.

    So in the case of Yale, I think that by a legal standard, William Shockley had the right to speak. If you want to find fault in this situation, it would be in the fact that Yale invited Mr. Shockley to speak in the first place.

  3. I am not here to debate with the previous two posters but instead to put forward my opinion in the context of my own nationality. Sorry to bring the UK into this again but I find the overlaps and differences intriguing when it comes to debates about free speech, rights and race.

    In the UK we have an uncodified constitution yet still value free speech. However there have been several instances in the last few years which have challenged public demonstrations of 'violent' language. One of these in particular that caught my attention was the banning of the Westboro' Baptist Church from visiting our country.

    The UK thus deems it useful to limit free speech when it comes from an outside location. The UK Border Agency stated that
    "we will continue to stop those who want to spread extremism, hatred and violent messages in our communities from coming to our country." Is this censorship or is it productive to ban extremists from voicing their opinions. Bear in mind they were coming to Britain to protest the perfomance of a play at a university.

    Another example of extremist free speech being allowed but checked by the public was BNP leader Nick Griffin's appearance on BBC Question Time. Griffin, whose party is openly racist, anti-Islamic and homophobic, was allowed to express his views on the most watched television channel in the country. However the studio audience, who had been picked due to their political participation, were allowed to ask questions to offer a critique of his policies. This gave the more easily influenced viewers a chance to see both sides of the argument and thus prevented the programme becoming a rally of nationalist views.

    Although I do not enjoy hearing the views of the extremely prejudiced, I think it is important to listen to the views of those you disagree with to inspire debate.

  4. Thank you for bringing our attention to this, Becca. I did not know anything about this beforehand. Freedom of speech is an important yet controversial and ambiguous issue in American history. I am not an expert on free speech law, so thank you Kolton for providing this information. I think this argument comes down to challenging our Constitution. As someone who strongly believes in personal liberties, I think that Shockley did have the freedom to speak his mind when invited to do so, but this does not mean that I think him doing so at Yale is right. As Kolton points out, the issue is not that Shockley spoke at Yale, but that Yale invited him to do so. I am shocked that such a prominent university, one of the nation's best, would think that this is a good idea.

    To me, there are two types of violence: physical and psychological. Not only is Shockley extremely outdated and scientifically incorrect, but he is also, moreover, emotionally violent in his blatant racism. June Jordan's argument against Shockley reminded me of the constitutional idea of the pursuit of happiness so long as it does not infringe upon the pursuit of happiness of another, and I do think that Shockley threatens Jordan's "pursuit of happiness" in that he challenges her very existence. But, who am I to that Shockley should not have the right to his own opinion and should not accept an invitation to express that opinion to others? I think that Yale is the one at fault here, as I do not think that this is an appropriate setting for Shockley to speak at. There are other places that Shockley could have spoken at.

  5. Everyone,

    After reading this post and the responses, I'm completely at a lost for words. It is utterly mind boggling that the debate is whether Jordan should be able to protest against Stockley. Stockley’s main objective was to spread theories that is damaging to the livelihood of black women who have suffered racial persecution in America. It is irrelevant to me to discuss free speech in this circumstance, instead we should focus on how the arena was developed for an individual to make such claims and not be challenged. There is a fundamental issue here that is failing to be recognized and discussed. Do I believe in freedom of speech, yes however there are boundaries and limits to what can be said.

    Stockley’s opinions goes far beyond “fighting words”. The results of his potentially highly influential propaganda will have adverse negative effects on public thoughts. Especially for the time period and the lack of racial understanding, he probably would have openly received little opposition.

  6. Just to be clear, in my previous post I was simply providing the legal standards by which the United States treats free speech and how they might apply to this case.

    Denise, I agree that Shockley's statements go beyond "fighting words," but that is exactly why it would be protected as free speech according to US law. Because not only is he saying something hurtful or upsetting, but he is purporting a set of ideas. And the law also says that it is okay for him to put forward hurtful ideas, as long as they don't pose any *immediate* threat. Furthermore, the protection of free speech is so rigid that those who wish to disseminate controversial and unpopular ideas deserve to spread these ideas with a guarantee of safety. This is something we see today with groups like the Westboro Baptist Church, where their protests are protected by police because they are guaranteed the right to state their opinion without harm being done to them. This is what the law itself would mandate.

    This is a painful reality for many because it seems like the bad guys get the protection. And that is the reason that many take the US conception of free speech to task, as Denise has. At a fundamental level, there is a disapproval of the application of free speech protection, and that is a completely valid view.

    I think it's also worth noting that Shockley was a very controversial figure even during that time and there were many that protested him and plainly rejected his views or felt that his position was unclear.

    Dayna, I would also agree that empathy is not action, but I also don't think that they are mutually exclusive. A sense of empathy could manifest itself in any number of ways, including the pursuit of action or political change.

  7. Hi Becca, Dayna, Kolton, Scarlet, Samantha, and Denise,

    Part 1/2

    Thanks for sharing some of your research with the class, Becca, and especially for calling our attention to Jordan's essay as an additional text for our class conversations. I agree with you, Becca, that speech is a very real form of violence. I think we can each remember the most hateful or hurtful words uttered to us with particularly unforgettable clarity. However, as you and Jordan note, the "us" or "we" can me constituted in many ways, and one of those ways it is constituted is through the promotion or permission of specific forms of speech. What is being called to my mind right now are just how many times in recent months we have had to listen to the repetition of misogynistic rhetoric against women and our bodies, repeated ostensibly to ought the utterers, but often having the effect of further shaming and silencing women. Becca, I also agree with you that I often find myself having very strange arguments in which logic is privileged (most often by men) over empathy, kindness, understanding, or fairness, or even a coherent understanding or application of historical evidence.

    Your discussion of Jordan's article and the issue of freedom to speak, both the legal definition and the larger ramifications for racist, malicious, or socially unacceptable speech, is dynamic and interesting. You are doing very good work here and making a serious contribution to our understanding of who has access to the "freedom" outlined in the Constitution. Jordan says, "There has never been and there will never be absolute freedom of speech in this country" (92). I think this is a condition and a reality that Dayna, Denise, and Kolton are actually all in agreement upon. Furthermore, I take Jordan’s question, "But what is the sudden rush to the cause of freedom?" to be not just a reminder of the many unfreedoms practiced by the state, but a canny understanding that whenever "freedom of [fill in the blank]" is invoked, we should all pay very close attention.

    The title of the book this essay was collected in is "Civil Wars." I wonder what you make of the relationship of violent speech to Jordan's use of was as a metaphor and as a reality or condition of life in the United States in the 1970s.

  8. Part 2/2:
    As Kolton states, universities often hold a somewhat exceptional case in relationship to freedom of speech as we want as a society to protect the space in which we can develop and elaborate on ideas even in their infancy. Unfortunately, though that has often historically also meant that universities are complicit to inflicting traumas on those peoples that are excluded or, as Harriet Washington details in her book _Medical Apartheid_ even preys upon for the ostensibly noble purpose of the pursuit of knowledge and medical advancements. I tend to agree that some ideas are not open to debate, that there are ideas that are debased and debasing, are destructive and so repugnant that they should not be heard. I also think that it is especially important that we thoroughly historicize ideas that seem to be ahistorical in their nature. I think universities should be responsible to *not* play party to individuals like Shockley or the recent comments of Emory's President because these ideas can be overheard incorrectly, misapplied, or presented in a rhetorical vacuum.

    I think this discussion speaks to Denise's point that our conversation might also consider how Shockley's views on eugenics might have received so much legitimacy in the public sphere, and have even been lent the air of "scientific" justification. Is this the issue you are drawing our attention to, Denise when you say, "It is irrelevant to me to discuss free speech in this circumstance, instead we should focus on how the arena was developed for an individual to make such claims and not be challenged. There is a fundamental issue here that is failing to be recognized and discussed"? How do his arguments in favor of eugenics and a form of genetic policing and mutilation relate to those who precede or come after him? How do these beliefs gain traction?

    I would like to hear from more members of the class on these issues. As Dayna is suggesting in her first response, racism no longer always exists out in the open. Rather, today we traffic in insidious forms of racism, homophobia, and misogyny under the cover of legal structures and in the form of legal and institutional exclusion. So when institutions give those who have power in these systems a platform, we must, as Jordan calls for, not just abstain but raise our voices in protest.


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