Words Matter: The Power of Speech in Changing Minds

Words are powerful, and, when used well, they can incite people to both good and evil. They give those in positions of power, well, power – and lots of it. And, thanks to the Bill of Rights, specifically the very first item on it, people can say almost anything with presumably no consequences. This means when someone with influence says something publicly, it can have a huge impact on society.

While everyone has the right to say whatever he or she wants, those with influence over audiences have the responsibility to exercise their free speech with vigilance. While speech can be, and is, used benevolently, it is also used nefariously. Examples of either are unneeded here; the evidence for both is plentiful and ever growing.

The media are not the only ones with this responsibility. Anybody who has influence over any number of people is aware of the impact of their words. Words matter, and saying certain things can have unforeseen consequences. The expression “Be careful what you wish for” wasn’t created in a vacuum.

A gut-wrenching story illustrates the importance of this responsibility on a very personal level. In Massachusetts, a woman was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for sending text messages to convince her boyfriend to commit suicide. She continually told her boyfriend to get back into his truck while it was filling up with carbon-monoxide. While she is protected under the First Amendment to an extent, the consequences of her words are too real to be ignored. She ignored her responsibility to exercise this right with caution and is being punished for her “reckless conduct.”

The recent shooting of Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise offers a lesson as well. A distraught Bernie Sanders supporter, angry over the recent election of Donald Trump, found it necessary to travel to Virginia from Illinois and open fire on a group of Republican lawmakers. The shooter may have been tackling other mental illness issues at the time, but is it possible all the toxic, and sometimes violent, rhetoric against President Trump pushed this man to do what he did? Would he have not done what he did if he weren’t influenced by media outlets he followed constantly attacking Trump, making the president seem more evil than Satan himself? We will never know with certainty since the shooter is now dead, but the rhetoric can’t be written off.

And here’s why we can’t just look the other way (so to speak!) — because to say it had no influence in the commission of the crime is to deny that speech can also bring good.  National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg well-articulated the relationship between free speech and action.

I have always thought it absurd to claim that expression cannot lead people to do bad things, precisely because it is so obvious that expression can lead people to do good things. According to legend, Abraham Lincoln told Harriet Beecher Stowe, ‘So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.’ Should we mock Lincoln for saying something ridiculous?

As Irving Kristol once put it, ‘If you believe that no one was ever corrupted by a book, you have also to believe that no one was ever improved by a book. You have to believe, in other words, that art is morally trivial and that education is morally irrelevant.’

If words don’t matter, then democracy is a joke, because democracy depends entirely on making arguments — not for killing, but for voting. Only a fool would argue that words can move people to vote but not to kill.

Goldberg also points out that the First Amendment was built on an effort to stop leaders from murdering in the name of religion.

Ironically, free speech was born in an attempt to stop killing. It has its roots in freedom of conscience. Before the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the common practice was that the rulers’ religion determined their subjects’ faith too. Religious dissent was not only heresy but a kind of treason. After Westphalia, exhaustion with religion-motivated bloodshed created space for toleration. As the historian C. V. Wedgwood put it, the West had begun to understand ‘the essential futility of putting the beliefs of the mind to the judgment of the sword.’

This didn’t mean that Protestants instantly stopped hating Catholics or vice versa. Nor did it mean that the more ecumenical hatred of Jews vanished. What it did mean is that it was no longer acceptable to kill people simply for what they believed — or said.

But words still mattered. Art still moved people. And the law is not the full and final measure of morality.

All in all, freedom of speech is a considerably large power given to the residents of this country. And, in the words of one well-known superhero’s uncle, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Is There Any Room for Diversity of Thought on New England College Campuses?

The quintessential image of an austere college campus usually involves students walking across the quad with colorful leaves falling in the background. Their backpacks are heavy with books, or maybe the students are carrying a particularly thick text as they try waving their hands, engaged in heated discussion, moving as if floating on a cloud of intellectual stimulation.

Nowhere else is this image best envisioned than on the Northeast campuses of New England, the Dartmouths, Harvards, and Yales of higher education.

Yet, you’d be wrong to think these imagined discussions are steeped in diversity of thought. That’s not what’s happening on these campuses, according to the Heterodox Academy, which ranked 200 schools on how much viewpoint diversity one can expect to find. The organization, which collates several sources of information, including whether the school is committed to the Chicago Principles of Free Expression, recent events on campus, and implementation of speech codes, is comprised of professors who have taken a pledge to support and respect diverse perspectives, particularly political perspectives, and to foster an environment where people feel free to speak their piece.

Samuel J. Abrams, a professor of politics and social science at Sarah Lawrence College and a member of the Heterodox Academy, says that the results are particularly troubling when it comes to the storied institutions of New England.

The ranking has revealed that New England is by far the worst region of the country, especially for liberal-arts colleges, when it comes to campuses that support and maintain viewpoint diversity. With Harvard, Yale, Brown, and Tufts on the university side and Williams, Wesleyan, Smith, Amherst, and Mount Holyoke on the liberal-arts college side, these schools reflect the politics of the region and were all at the bottom of the rankings in terms of viewpoint diversity. This could well be the first time that these esteemed institutions have found themselves at the bottom of national rankings that are so crucial to the very mission of higher education.

But schools in the Upper Midwest and along the West Coast didn’t fare well either. The schools of the South and Midwest were described as the “least closed” in terms of diversity of thought.

Abrams notes that it may be easy to dismiss the findings as imperfect or one-offs, but they are becoming part of a trend.

New England has long viewed its progressive and social-justice leanings as part of its historical fabric, and the ideological preferences of those teaching in its institutions certainly reflect that. …

Taken together, these studies should give pause to New Englanders and anyone else interested in education, civic life, and questions of innovation and social progress. Students — current, future, and former — along with parents, trustees, and those in the community, should demand that institutions of higher education recommit themselves to the free exchange of a multiplicity of ideas. Viewpoint diversity is what drives progress on countless fronts, and it can help forestall the almost weekly nationwide blowups over speech and ideas.

This trend may get worse or better in the near future — that will depend on leadership at these colleges, leadership that goes all the way to the top. While Charles Murray recently lamented the problem of Middlebury’s president dismissing a riot that resulted in a professor being injured and free speech driven off campus, some school presidents are starting to see the downside of a lack of intellectual diversity.

Whether these schools help students learn to think critically, accept dissent, and function constructively when challenged will determine whether generations to come protect and preserve principles held dear by the nation’s Founding Fathers and which make American exceptionalism the envy of the world.

‘By Any Means Necessary’ on an Upswing? How to Stop Campus Violence

A major uptick in violence on college campuses has been reported lately, concerning many over whether violence as a means of protest is now in vogue after a long dormant state. Is there a way to put an end to campus violence? Former Sen. Jim Talent has some ideas.

But first to recap a recent disturbing episode: You may have heard the story about Charles Murray, the famous social scientist who was invited to Middlebury College to speak and a mob broke out, threatening him and sending one of his hosts, Professor Allison Stanger, to the hospital.

Apparently, students at the liberal arts school were afraid of Murray’s words. He had written the book Coming Apart, The State of White America, 1960-2010, several years back, which premised that white America, like other racial and ethnic groups, is starkly divergent as a result of disparate wealth levels. The book description reads:

Drawing on five decades of statistics and research, Coming Apart demonstrates that a new upper class and a new lower class have diverged so far in core behaviors and values that they barely recognize their underlying American kinship—divergence that has nothing to do with income inequality and that has grown during good economic times and bad.

The top and bottom of white America increasingly live in different cultures, Murray argues, with the powerful upper class living in enclaves surrounded by their own kind, ignorant about life in mainstream America, and the lower class suffering from erosions of family and community life that strike at the heart of the pursuit of happiness. That divergence puts the success of the American project at risk.

Murray has been touring around the country discussing this book since its release. But college students at Middlebury decided that Murray needed to be shut down since he is so clearly (sarcasm) a “white supremacist.”

Murray says he was deeply shaken by the events that transpired, not because of the accusation, which he has confronted before, nor because of a protest of his speech, which is also not new to him. Murray said his fear stemmed from the animalistic behavior of the students.

Many looked like they had come straight out of casting for a film of brownshirt rallies. In some cases, I can only describe their eyes as crazed and their expressions as snarls. Melodramatic, I know. But that’s what they looked like.

Murray called for the university to inflict severe punishment on the students who behaved with such mob mentality, not because he was the subject of the attack, but because it is morally wrong and ultimately dangerous to normalize such behavior by letting it slide. Malcolm X popularized Jean-Paul Satre’s term “by any means necessary,” which predicated that violence is a fair tactic for protest. But even Malcolm X believed that violence is not necessary if the ends can be achieved through another method.

That’s where former Sen. Jim Talent comes in. Talent recently wrote that he thought America had already reached the point in which violence is never necessary as a means of political protest.

No one’s ideas should be shut out or shut down because of mob violence. Our people should not have to risk life and limb, or the destruction of property or property rights, because they want to speak or hear others speak.

But since it has evidently become popular again to use violence as protest (there seem to be plenty of examples of late), Talent says it’s time for government to get involved.

The government is not helpless to protect this right. Controlling the mob is something that governments have known how to do for millennia. In fact, if “controlling the mob” were a class in political science, it would be a survey course, part of “Government 101.”

And if local governments are unable or unwilling to protect the right to free speech on campus from the mob, state authorities should intervene and bring the full force of state law, and state resources, to bear.

In short, what is needed here is a classic exercise of the government’s police power, which belongs in the first instance to state government. So let’s not talk about the Justice Department intervening in this area. This is a job for the governments of the several states; in fact, it is an opportunity for the states to show that freedoms still matter, and that the law is still capable of defending them.

Talent offered a very legislative approach to coming up with rules about disorderly disruptions of speech on college campuses, including mandatory jail time for a first-time misdemeanor conviction, or a felony conviction for second offenses.

He also called for laws that require “automatic termination of any state employee, or expulsion of any student at a state university, convicted of violating the new statute, even if the conviction is a misdemeanor and regardless of whether the state employee has tenure or other civil-service protections.”

Talent also listed law enforcement training, special prosecutors, and other solutions in his piece.

Some of these solutions may seem severe, but Talent’s point, like Murray’s, is that failure to do anything is allowing the problem to grow.

Every time one of these episodes occurs, dozens of columns are written decrying them. That is good as far as it goes, but at a certain point it looks like hand wringing. The right response to speech is more speech, but the right response to violence against speech is not just verbal condemnation but strong laws, carefully written and stringently enforced.

We are not defenseless in the face of violence. This isn’t 1929, and America isn’t the Weimar Republic. Nor should our people have to rely on organizing their own self-defense. We don’t need anarchists and vigilantes fighting it out on the grounds of our universities. But that’s what we’re going to get, unless those who have the authority, and therefore the responsibility, take firm action to protect their people in the exercise of their rights.

Political speech is one thing, and shouldn’t be shut down, but violence is entirely another matter. Are new laws needed to curtail this particular type of violence?