When Words Lead to Violence

Assault is a criminal offense. I happen to think that is a good thing. The intentional infliction of physical harm on someone who does not wish to be harmed should be against the law. I do not expect this to be a terribly controversial idea. What seems to be a bit more controversial is that I'd take this one step further and suggest that being verbally insulted by someone does not justify physically assaulting them.

Suppose a stranger approaches you on the street and calls you a name. Imagine that it is the worst name imaginable and that you are "triggered." Admittedly, this situation sucks. Your hurt feelings do not, however, justify you physically attacking the stranger. Having your feelings hurt by a verbal insult, as unpleasant an experience as it can be, does not justify a violent act.

It does not justify assault any more than seeing a man bring his 5-year-old daughter into the men's room at Walmart justifies physically assaulting him. It does not matter whether the man in the restroom was as outraged as you might be upon being insulted. In both cases, the violence is unjustified.

Being insulted by a stranger, even a Christian preacher who tells you that women deserve to be raped, does not justify an assault with a weapon. We can put ourselves in the shoes of the woman in this case and imagine how upset she must have been upon hearing from this preacher. We can share her wish that he would shut the hell up. And yet, none of that justifies her alleged assault.

It is also important to recognize that being insulted by a stranger does not suddenly justify assault simply because the stranger might have offended one's religious sensibilities. Taking offense because someone who does not share your religious beliefs violated various prohibitions imposed by your religion does not justify committing violent acts against them. This is true even if someone dares to draw an image of your "prophet." If you wish to comply with the dictates of your religion, you are free to do so. If others do not wish to do so, they are free not to do so. You do not get to murder them for it.

When we talk about free speech or the free expression of ideas, we are often thinking about governmental interference (e.g., being arrested for saying something someone in power does not like). We think specifically about worst-case scenarios like this one in Singapore where the police arrested a young atheist blogger for "allegedly wounding the religious feelings of Muslims and Christians," which is evidently a criminal offense in that country. I think that most of us agree that we would prefer not to live in a country where the police routinely punish the expression of unpopular opinions.

And while I realize that we may sometimes disagree when it comes to the application of social pressures by private citizens to shape speech they do not like (e.g., "call outs" and public shaming), I would hope that we can agree that the expression of ideas, including "hate speech," does not justify violence. It does not justify violence by our government, and it does not justify violence by private citizens. Words do sometimes hurt; they do not justify violence.