How ‘silence is violence’ threatens true free speech and public civility

Getty Images

“Silence is violence” has everything that you want in a slogan from brevity to simplicity. But it can also be chilling for some in the academic and free speech communities. On one level, it conveys the powerful message that people of good faith should not remain silent about great injustices. But it can at the same time have a much more menacing meaning to “prove the negative” by demanding that people show that they are not racist.

In a previous column, I warned of the thin line between speech codes and commands, as people shift from compelling silence to compelling words. “Once all the offending statues are down, and all the offending professors are culled, the appetite for collective suppression will become a demand for collective expression.” Such a line between punishing and compelling speech is easily crossed if free speech itself is viewed as a threat.

This goes beyond the cases of journalists, academics, and others fired for voicing their dissenting views. Even expressing support in the wrong way can be a terminal offense, such as declaring “all lives matter” rather than “black lives matter,” which led to the firing of Massachusetts dean Leslie Neal Boylan or Vermont principal Tiffany Riley. While most of us support the movement, it has become the official position of many colleges, and variations are not tolerated. The concern is not only an establishment of the orthodox values but also the forced recitation of the values.

We are now watching the fear realized. A mob surrounded diners outside several Washington restaurants, shouting “white silence is violence” and demanding that diners raise a fist to support the movement. Some diners dutifully complied as protesters screamed inches from their faces. Lauren Victor said she marched with protests but refused to be bullied. The mob surrounded her, and Washington Post reporter Fredrick Kunkle eventually identified one freelance journalist as one of the people yelling at her face and loudly demanding, “What was in you? You could not do it?”

It is the very mantra of orthodoxy. Failing to utter certain words, prayers, or pledges is a confession of complicity or guilt. That demand for public affirmation was on display once more as Senator Rand Paul and his wife were threatened by a mob after leaving an event during the Republican National Convention. They were told to “say her name” in a reference to Breonna Taylor, the emergency medical technician shot by the police in Louisville. Some media suggested the mob did not know who Paul was. They just demanded that he say the name if he wanted to pass.

Forced speech can occur in different ways. University of Southern Maine president Glenn Cummings proclaimed, “We must never tire of declaring that black lives matter.” He asked students and faculty to add their names to a public pledge against racism. After some objections, the college said it would keep the list private. The concern was some faculty and students may not support black lives matter as an organization, or have some other disagreements with the pledge, yet failure to be on the list would indicate they are really racist, or at least not sufficiently against racism.

The University of California also issued a “guidance document” requiring students to reject racism, sexism, xenophobia, and hateful and intolerant speech, including a mandate for students to stop others from referring to the “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan virus.” While use of such terms has been controversial, it also is heavily laden with political meaning for people on both sides of the debate over the response to the coronavirus.

Syracuse University moved much more directly not just to prohibit but to mandate some forms of speech. Professor Keith Alford, the diversity and inclusion officer of the college, declared students would be punished for simply witnessing “bias motivated” incidents and “acts of hate.” That was the response to demands by a student group for expulsion of “individuals who witnessed the event or were present but did not take part.”

The current transition from speech codes to commands is based on the same notion of speech as harm. Just as speech is deemed harmful, and thus subject to regulation, silence is now deemed harmful. University of California Berkeley law professor Savala Trepczynski, also the executive director of the Henderson Center for Social Justice, declared that “white silence is incredibly powerful” and that “it acts like a weapon.”

It is not unreasonable to call out others for not supporting the important causes. Indeed, I have criticized faculty members for remaining silent as their colleagues were attacked or fired for voicing their dissenting views over systemic racism, police brutality, or other subjects. However, once both speech and silence are deemed equally harmful, individuals could have to face these public demonstrations of faith and fealty.

Even being tired can fuel calls for termination. Nearly 2,000 people signed the petition to fire Marymount Manhattan theater professor Patricia Simon after she appeared to fall asleep briefly in a virtual meeting on racism. The student Caitlin Gagnon started the petition, which has accused Simon of ignoring “racist and sizeist actions and words of the vocal coaches under her jurisdiction.” So you are not woke if you are not awake.

Such concern over speech codes turning into speech commands would have been viewed as absurd just a few years ago. Now calls for civility in dialogue are denounced as racist dog whistles. Trinity College professor Johnny Williams said those who want civility uphold “white supremacist” capitalist power. When news host Joe Scarborough criticized those who confronted diners at restaurants and asked for more civility, University of Mississippi professor James Thomas denounced it and said, “Do not just interrupt meals. Put your whole damn fingers in their salads.”

It is the ultimate expression of entitlement. People either must conform to your values or face the public condemnation and threats. Your salad is no more inviolate than your speech. In a world where silence is violence and civility is complicity, there is little room for true free speech.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online @JonathanTurley.

Tags Americans Constitution Culture Education Government Protests Violence

More Civil Rights News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video