When ‘violent disagreement’ isn’t just a figure of speech

A few days ago, journalist Zoey Tur, formerly Bob Tur, briefly made headlines after a televised roundtable discussion of transsexuality during which he grabbed another participant by the back of the neck, leaned in, and growled, “You cut that out now, or you’ll go home in an ambulance.” The other panelist’s offense? Arguing that Tur’s male genome meant he was in fact… male. When he was asked later why threats of violence against transsexuals are wrong but threats of violence against those who disagree with transsexuality are acceptable, Tur tweeted, “being called Sir and mentally ill is violence” (emphasis mine).

I bring up the incident because it illustrates a new and increasingly widespread perspective which has the potential to radically change the social and legal framework of conversation and disagreement in America. This is the idea that being confronted with “bad” ideas, and especially being challenged on issues which one considers important, is tantamount to violence.

When heterodox feminist Christina Hoff Sommers spoke at Oberlin University and argued against “campus rape culture” dogma, the Oberlin Review exhorted their fellow students to “pull together in the face of this violence.” Jade Schiff, an Oberlin Assistant Professor of Politics, wrote that Sommers’ speech was “‘discursive violence’ because it attacks victims’ experiences and their descriptions of and reactions to those experiences.”

When UCLA graduate students protested professor Val Rust and eventually forced him off campus for “racial microaggressions,” they accused him of creating a “hostile and unsafe climate for Scholars of Color,” even though their itemized list of complaints stated only that he failed to respect their “epistemologies… intellectual rigor and… methodological genealogies.” When bakers Aaron and Melissa Klein refused to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple, the ensuing lawsuit listed “felt mentally raped” as one of the damages the rejected lesbians experienced.

Similar examples could multiply down the page, but hopefully the trend is clear: a serious and unquestioned assumption that certain types of disagreement are–literally–violent. Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that Tur’s fellow-panelist truly was shockingly rude, that Sommers really does disparage rape victims, that Rust disrespected his students, and that the Kleins were gratuitously intolerant when they refused to bake that wedding cake. Frame the events in the worst possible light for those accused, and still, all you have are words; words that are seen as violence.

This is a very troubling development. American law has always drawn a stark line between words and deeds. In the famous Brandenburg case, the Supreme Court held that even an unrepentantly racist Ku Klux Klan leader was entitled to spout his venom unless his words were likely to incite “imminent lawless action.” Words are far from harmless, but American jurisprudence has held that the danger from wicked or cruel words is less than the danger that comes with allowing the government to police our words and decide what we are and are not allowed to say. This reluctance to regulate language makes sense if, as the nursery rhyme says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” but the distinction breaks down if the effects of violent actions and cruel words are ultimately indistinguishable. If disagreement and disrespect belong in the same category as a blow, why outlaw one but not the other?

The effects of this “words as violence” perspective are already being felt on college campuses across the country, as detailed in a recent, much-discussed article titled, “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me.” But I am more interested in the possible implications for Christians. If making people uncomfortable, disagreeing with their deeply-held beliefs, and challenging their own self-assessments should really been seen as violence, then bearing a Christian testimony could become much more… interesting. It is not an exaggeration to say that many in our culture are moving toward a perspective from which carrying out the Great Commission does not look substantially different from a mugging.

This is not a call for panic. The children of a sovereign God do not need to fear, regardless of what the future may hold. But Jesus did say, “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16, emphasis mine). So here are a few ideas for how we can be wise about this impending challenge:

1. Be sure–absolutely sure–that our every word is soaked with love. When our opponents are primed for hateful violence, unexpected love can be dramatically and unexpectedly effective. I recently came across this story of a gay protest at a church which ended after a few minutes when they realized their “anger … was aimed [in] the wrong direction.” The leader of the protestors explained, “Once we got there Sunday morning we were greeted with absolutely perfect love. I mean, it was fantastic.” Let the power of surprise drive the gospel home!

2. If your giftings are academic, consider directly engaging and challenging the social justice theories that underlie the false equivalence of words with violence. Liberal academics have spent decades researching and publishing these ideas, largely without pushback in their own language and on their own terms. The current crop of campus microaggression complaints and trigger warnings is the result. Since we agree that what we say matters a great deal (cf. Matthew 5:21-22, James 3:5-12) and that we ought to love our neighbor as ourselves, Christians are well-positioned to offer constructive alternatives that respect the right to disagree while still emphasizing the need for mutual respect and courtesy.

3. Pray. It can change the course of a nation. I Timothy 2:2 reminds us to pray for those in authority so “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” The idea that offensive and challenging words should be treated like physical violence is bad for the church and bad for our country, so ask God to consign these ideas to the dustbin of history, like many an academic fad before them.

Ultimately, when it comes to the future, the only things we can be sure of are that something will happen, and that God will be in control of it. Trusting in God precludes worrying about the future, but loving our neighbor means knowing what he is thinking. Hopefully, recognizing that some of our neighbors will have a fundamentally different understanding of what it means to disagree and debate will make us more effective ambassadors for Christ, while we leave the future up to God.

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