When the “Violence” Isn't Violent

Activists must stop equating what they dislike to physical brutality. An opinion is never a punch in the face.

To describe popping a balloon filled with pink or blue glitter as “violent” might seem a little odd. But this is how the New York Times columnist Charles Blow characterized gender-reveal parties, where expectant parents announce the sex of a forthcoming baby. “All we know before a child is born is their anatomy. They will reveal their gender.” Such occasions aren’t cute, he tweeted. “They’re violent.”

If by “violence,” he meant a physical attack, Blow had misspoken. But this wasn’t a mistake. Rather, he employed a different sense of “violence.” Such events, he meant, pushed the unborn child into predetermined gender roles, constraining them with social power that might be compared to actual violence. The coercion is less immediate but, according to this line of thought, no less damaging.

Such usage is becoming increasingly common, employed to describe everything from the violence of Latin tests that hurt students’ self-esteem, to the violent appropriation of hip-hop in the musical Hamilton. The concept is also seeping into institutions, as when Seattle Public Schools held a training session for teachers that charged American schools with the “spirit murder” of black students.

This reconception of violence is more than another shift in the English language. It’s a series of deliberate word choices used to equate nonphysical offenses to physical harm. Too often, the result is to delegitimize alternative views, ratchet up everyone’s anger, and vulgarize a term that should be reserved for real brutality.

The intellectual inspiration for what I’ll call “faux violence” is postmodernist thought. The first step came from the theories of the late French philosopher Michel Foucault. Central to his work is the idea that innocuous practices exercise power over us. For instance, a dormitory designed to allow its supervisor clear sightlines of residents is, he said, an architectural form of control. The authority of a doctor to define what is and is not madness exerts power too, condoning most individuals while condemning an unlucky few to social exclusion. “Power is everywhere: not that it engulfs everything, but that it comes from everywhere,” he wrote in The History of Sexuality.

Subsequent scholars drew from his work, extending this notion. The reasoning goes something like this: If commonplace behaviors exercise a force with effects comparable to actual violence, then those acts become analogous to violence itself. You might oppress someone with a physical attack—but you could also do so through a prejudicial statement.

By the late 1980s, postmodernist analysis began to enter the mainstream, applied to a variety of political causes. Some of those who took from Foucault’s insight that power is often exercised through defining the bounds of acceptability ended up policing those boundaries themselves, charging others with “violence.”

Scholars applied this particularly to the use of language. The influential American theorist Judith Butler has argued that using terms like “women” to describe some and not others reinforces gender categories, becoming part of the “habitual and violent presumptions” that restrict self-expression. Kehinde Andrews, professor of black studies at Birmingham City University, has said that maintaining a statue of the brutal colonialist Cecil Rhodes at an Oxford college is a violent act, as the perpetuation of “whiteness” and imperialism. “It is easy to underestimate the symbolic violence that is committed on a daily basis in spaces like Oxford,” he wrote in an anthology of essays, Rhodes Must Fall.  “But you only need to walk on the campus to feel the oppression in the environment.”

Faux violence tends to fall into two categories. The first derives from a perceived offense, often through the “erasure” or “denial” of a marginalized group’s experience. Cultural appropriation is a notable example of this, as in the case of an Arab-French woman’s performance art in which she appeared onstage naked but for a Native American feather headdress. Though she aimed to “call out the repression of the dominating colonial powers,” her work was itself condemned as complicit in the “violence of colonialism.”

The second type of faux violence has a clearer conceptual link to the real thing. Its proponents cite a statement or action they deem to be dehumanizing, and argue that this will provoke actual brutalization of a vulnerable group. While we all accept that incitement of violence deserves condemnation, faux violence expands what constitutes incitement to include dissenting views, even innocuous remarks.

A prominent case came in 2015. Before Halloween that year, the Yale lecturer and early-education specialist Erika Christakis sent an email to those at a college residence in which she responded to guidelines on offensive costumes. In it, she noted “I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation,” but wondered “if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional … exercise of implied control over college students.”

Almost a thousand Yale students and faculty called for her removal and that of her husband, Professor Nicholas Christakis. An open letter expressed the reasoning: “In your email, you ask students to ‘look away’ if costumes are offensive, as if the degradation of our cultures and people, and the violence that grows out of it is something that we can ignore.” Her words, the letter contended, were “inviting ridicule and violence onto ourselves and our communities.”

She had done nothing more violent than writing a conciliatory letter. Yet the charges were extreme, and the public smearing consequential: Erika Christakis resigned from her position a few months later.

Faux-violence claims often aim not just to shut up political foes, but to have them shunned. Slapping a colleague in the face would cost your job—now a misplaced remark could do the same. If the two are placed on a par, the injustice is clear. And it’s crass in a world where real violence still abounds.

There are philosophical reasons to reject this too. While it is possible to imagine a case of hate speech doing more harm than an act of physical attack (a person might be hurt more by racial abuse than by a kid's shove, for example), freedom from violence is a prerequisite for all other rights. Without security, it’s hard to speak freely. But stating a controversial view, no matter how distasteful, leaves others’ rights intact in a way that physically attacking people does not. Even those who claim faux violence would rather state an offensive opinion than punch someone, let alone be punched.

The trend of faux violence seeks to redefine what sort of speech we regulate. There are instances that most agree should be restricted, ranging from defamation to false advertising to incitement. But most also believe that individual freedoms should not be curtailed. It was for this reason that John Stuart Mill, writing in On Liberty (1859), formulated his “harm principle”: The only justification for limiting individual liberties, including free speech, is to prevent harm to others.

But Mill left fuzzy how significant that harm had to be. It’s a vagueness that those who claim faux violence operate within. What’s more, speech is now radically different than in Mill’s day. Allegedly “violent” opinions can be amplified via social media, while those who would attack such views are also granted a potentially vast audience.

How to define the harms of speech is a worthy debate. But faux violence sets the bar worryingly low. For Mill, incitement meant whipping up “an excited mob” with malevolent intent. For some Yale students, it was an email about Halloween costumes.

Faux violence also stretches plausibility—one suspects that the email’s critics would have a hard time pointing to a specific act of violence it had provoked. More insidiously, faux violence can punish honest debate and leave dogma unchallenged. We all suffer under this chilling effect, whether accuser or accused. Both risk becoming what Mill called “promising intellects combined with timid characters.”

Faux violence is a bad idea even by the standards of those who helped popularize it. Butler, writing in The Force of Nonviolence, remarked on how the authorities often label dissenters as “violent” in order to muzzle them, redefining peaceful demonstrations as purported mobs that must be dispersed. “The power to attribute violence to the opposition itself becomes an instrument by which to enhance state power, to discredit the aims of the opposition, or even to justify their radical disenfranchisement, imprisonment, and murder,” she argues.

The destructive power that Butler cites here is more grave than that wielded by advocates of faux violence. But its rhetorical use—largely in progressive circles, above all in the United States—has this same discrediting intent.

Faux violence emerged from the noble wish to tackle injustice. And faux violence springs from a worthwhile insight too: that everyday statements and behaviors shape our attitudes, and by extension our institutions and our society. Sometimes this works in damaging ways. And, if you squint, it’s understandable how someone could hear a comment that bothers them, see it as a perpetuation of societal prejudice, and worry that this will ultimately have damaging consequences.

But we cannot understand society by squinting at it; we need to look clearly. And faux violence is a rhetorical sleight-of-hand, one used far too commonly today, cheapening the worthy arguments of proponents of equality; suppressing the free exchange of ideas; and trivializing brutality.

If we want a society where physical attack remains distinct from speech, where the innocent are protected from smears, where real violence is treated with the disgust it deserves, we must remember that a gender-reveal party may be foolish—but that the only violence is against a glitter-filled balloon.

Nathaniel Rachman, an editorial assistant at Persuasion, is a recent history graduate from the University of Oxford, where he edited The Oxford Student.