Those who are disturbed by the recent NRA recruitment video, “The Violence of Lies,” have good reason to be. It endorses police violence against protesters and accuses progressives of inciting physical violence to subvert the Trump administration.
But more disturbing and less acknowledged, still, is the way the NRA has begun to use progressive talking points to blur the line between speech and violence. This contributes to an environment that is already hostile to the freedom to convey ideas that others don’t like.
Calling Words Violence
This language begins with the title: “The Violence of Lies.” It accuses progressives of using schools and Hollywood to subvert President Trump’s agenda. It obfuscates the vast difference between peaceful protests and physical violence in the form of property damage or terrorism:
All to make them march, make them protest, make them scream racism and sexism and xenophobia and homophobia. To smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstates and airports, bully and terrorize the law-abiding – until the only option left is for the police to do their jobs and stop the madness.”
Translation? These “lies” are violent and necessitate a response of state force in the form of police officers decked in riot gear. Speech begets violence, which warrants retaliatory violence. That there is a categorical difference between speech and action is left totally unacknowledged. And, as the title implies, these “lies” are violent in and of themselves, without any action attached to them.
If they can label anything they disagree with as violence, then all sorts of innocuous political movements can be so characterized.
This would be more chilling if it were new, but many on the fringe of the left have long equated speech with physical violence. Words were called violence when Milo Yiannopoulos was protested at UC Berkeley, and the theory that “hate speech” constitutes a real form of violence is now common within social justice circles. Again, the argument isn’t just that these words are deeply psychologically harmful or inexcusable, which should go without saying. Rather, they are functionally equivalent with, for example, punching white supremacists in the face.
When the lines of these categories are blurred and our understanding of what constitutes violence is so contorted, it becomes possible to unironically argue that the answer to speech you don’t like is hurting people.
Groups like Antifa argue this with the Nazi-punching meme by arguing that they are responding to the violence of words with comparable violence of fists. And the NRA is now using this language by vowing to “fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.”
These groups are two sides of the same authoritarian coin.
The practical consequences of this trend are limitless. Why speak out in opposition to police violence against protesters, after all, when the schools they’re attending are teaching them to say “violent things” about Trump? Aren’t those basically the same? Why participate in civil discourse with those who disagree with you when you can either physically assault them or weaponize the police state to do your bidding? Free speech is a cornerstone of American civil democracy.
Worse still, there’s no sign that this is a trend that will stop with hate speech and peaceful protests. If intellectual leaders and powerful interest groups on the left and the right can label anything they disagree with as violence, then all sorts of innocuous political positions and movements can be so characterized.
The principle of free speech and the legal institutions which enshrine it are a cornerstone of American civil democracy.
In a climate where the President of the United States of America is in a perpetual war of words with media outlets, congressional candidates are body-slamming journalists, students are stalking and trapping professors and college officials over microaggressions, and police forces are rapidly militarizing in the face of protests, Americans can’t sit on their thumbs and hope that courts and elected officials will be kept away from this conceptual chaos.
As the equivocation between speech and violence is increasingly accepted on both sides, it will be up to those skeptical of the argument’s philosophical base to remind others of the importance of maintaining a state that can’t restrict the speech of its citizens. Otherwise, whichever side is in power might weaponize this philosophy against the other. Violence begets violence.
For, as the great orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass once said, “to suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.” Both the social justice left and the NRA would do well to heed that.