Speech as an act of violence

Posted on May 19, 2013


The vile, misogynist, hate-mongering trolls that plague the atheist movement have recently sunk to a new low. Last week, a guy named Justicar posted a video on Youtube in which he demonstrates how he used a photograph posted on Twitter by retired blogger Jen McCreight to find the location of her boyfriend’s house. Then he doubled down by suggesting that McCreight should actually have thanked him. Justicar’s reasoning is that anybody who wants their complaints of online harassment taken seriously should meticulously scrub all their twitter photos of identifying information, and so his video was just some helpful advice on how to do so.

These justifications are transparently dishonest. The appropriate way to offer security advice, if such advice is warranted at all, is with a private e-mail, not with a public youtube video that all but says “I know where you live”. Justicar, an ex-police officer, presumably knows this, so it is hard to interpret his video as anything other than a blatant attempt at intimidation. I’m not going to write a whole post explaining why this is disgusting behaviour. PZ Myers does that much better than I could. Instead, I’m going to make the case that we should interpret this kind of behaviour unambiguously as an act of violence.

A lot of people, particularly in the atheist movement, object strongly to the idea that ‘mere’ words can be a form of violence. They typically argue that words, however malicious or harmful they may be, cannot be compared with punches, stabbings, gunshots, and other forms of physical violence, and that violence must include real, physical damage caused by physical force. This viewpoint can be found in fairly high places within atheist circles; Richard Dawkins invoked it in his criticism of Rebecca Watson during the elevatorgate incident:

“The man in the elevator didn’t physically touch her, didn’t attempt to bar her way out of the elevator, didn’t even use foul language at her. He spoke some words to her. Just words. She no doubt replied with words. That was that. Words. Only words, and apparently quite polite words at that.”

Elevator guy’s words probably can’t be called violence, but Dawkins’ argument has the same problem as the arguments against the idea of verbal violence: it relies on an artificial distinction between physical and psychological suffering. This distinction cannot, in good faith, be posited by any person who holds a materialist worldview. Atheists believe that there is no soul, that the brain is an organ like any other, and that the mind is simply an emergent property of the activity of the brain. This means that mental processes, including arguments, emotions, and creativity are every bit as physical as the beating of the heart or the clotting of blood.

It follows from this that psychological harm should be thought of as a particular sort of physical harm. Scientific evidence supports this conclusion. A 2009 experiment, for example, found that chronically stressed rats tended to lose their ability to creatively solve problems and were more predisposed to form and stick to simple routines. In humans, mental illnesses have been observed to have a very real effect on brain function: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, for example, causes real long-term neurodevelopmental problems. It seems that psychological damage can re-wire the brain in sub-optimal ways, causing long-term health problems. Psychological harm is thus a form of bodily harm like any other.

This implies that the intentional infliction of psychological harm must be understood as a form of violence. Violence (with the exception of structural violence, which is a much more complex phenomenon) is a relatively straightforward thing to define: A violent act is one in which a person intentionally causes injury to another person. No reasonable person would suggest that whether an act is violent depends on what kind of weapon is used, or what specific body part is targeted. If the brain is a physical organ and the mind is a physical phenomenon, and psychological damage is the same as physical damage, then surely psychological damage that is intentionally inflicted through threats, harassment, or other verbal attacks must be understood as violence. Few people, I think, would argue that words cannot be used to intentionally inflict psychological suffering, and so the conclusion seems obvious: Words can be violent.

If this is not convincing, then consider an argument by analogy. Most people would consider the intentional lacing of somebody’s food with poison to be a violent act. But poison is not like most other forms of physical violence. It does not rely on brute physical force to do damage; instead it takes advantage of the unique chemical processes that go on in the digestive system, by influencing them in a way that causes harm to the body. Just as the stomach is an organ for digesting food, the brain is an organ for digesting of information, and just as the wrong substance can cause serious health problems when digested by the stomach, the wrong information can cause serious health problems when digested by the brain. Each case relies on an active response of the the body’s organs to a particular input to cause damage, but this reliance does not make the damage any less acute. There is no good philosophical reason, therefore, to say that poisoned food is an act of violence while poisoned words are not.

For most people, regardless of their religious belief or lack thereof, this argument is unnecessary. Everybody has experienced some amount of both physical and psychological suffering at some point in their life, and I think many people would concede that there are examples of the former that can be worse than the latter. For example, I would rather be punched in the face than bereaved. For atheists, however, there is even more reason to recognize the violent potential of words. The only way to draw a clear distinction between physical and psychological violence is to posit some kind of Cartesian dualism which allows damage to the mind to be understood in a fundamentally different manner from damage to the body. That’s not an option for atheists, and so we need to accept that verbal violence is violence. This has an important practical conclusion: People like Justicar, who take advantage of the internet to threaten, harass, demean, or otherwise attack others are not mere harmless trolls. They are violent people, and they should be treated accordingly.

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