Our ability to communicate abstract ideas through language is an important part of what makes us human. But language is more than a tool to understand the world; it helps create the world, too. Language isn’t just words — it’s action.
Language allows us to create social systems, organize ourselves into groups and form political identities. Some words and phrases change their meanings gradually, almost unnoticeably. But sometimes language changes relatively quickly as we confront changing sociopolitical circumstances, rendering certain phrases unacceptable to specific groups.
For example, last week Milo Yiannopoulos, an outspoken far-right speaker and editor of Breitbart News, was forced to cancel an appearance at the University of California, Berkeley, after students protested his visit on the grounds that Yiannopoulos consistently promotes hate speech, referring to transgender students as “deeply mentally damaged.” Conservatives and liberals alike criticized the protesters, arguing that censoring different political opinions was hypocritical given their fervent support of civil rights and free speech.
This particular instance is specific, but the premise can be applied to debates about free speech on college campuses across the country. Conservative students at Berkeley felt their views weren’t represented on campus and wanted to expose their liberal classmates to other political opinions. Liberal students felt that these “differing political opinions” were hate speech and sought to discourage their presence on campus.
“Hate speech” is a tough term to crack. Does it describe personal attacks or attacks on groups of people? What’s the line between an opinion you fervently disagree with and one that is “hateful?”
There’s a misconception that all speech is protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. That’s not entirely true: threats and fighting words are two types of language that are unprotected by free speech. In Chaplinsky vs. New Hampshire in 1941, a man was convicted of a “breach of peace” after publicly calling a police officer “a God-damned racketeer” and “a damned Fascist.” In this case, the words Chaplinsky used were treated as criminal verbal attacks because the police officer was able to prove that the words harmed him emotionally.
Words are inextricably linked to the social meanings they index, as they do not exist in a vacuum. Hate speech is never just “talk.” It can normalize and perpetuate institutions of violence, hatred and intolerance. It can cause significant and legitimate emotional harm. It can alienate and demonize people. When baseless and unnecessary language is evoked as a means of subjugating minority groups, it plays into and strengthens systems of oppression that cause emotional, financial, educational and in many cases even physical distress.
Language like this is not a “diversity of opinion.” It is hate speech. If we take a stand against this language and make sure that it reaches as few people as possible, we take the first step in dismantling the bigoted institutions that create and perpetuate oppression.
This debate brings to mind a quote from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Albus Dumbledore says, “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.”
As the architects of language, we should try to focus on the latter.
Alex Schwartz is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected] If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected] The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.