In anticipation of the presentation of Christina Hoff Sommers at Oberlin College, a gaggle of students sent a “love letter to themselves” to the college newspaper. It was, as propriety demands, preceded by a trigger warning:
Content Warning: This letter contains discussion of rape culture, online harassment, victim blaming and rape apologism/denialism.
It’s a good thing this trigger warning was included, as it distinguished this anticipatory condemnation from the brutal trauma of actually hearing words before deciding they’re worthy of condemnation. Then again, thinking is so old school, when there are feelings to be felt.
In any event, the love letter was the stuff of banal childish gender politics, of no importance beyond serving as the punchline for a joke to be named later, involving safe spaces, puppies and Play-Doh. Except, perhaps for this one line:
Her talk is happening, so let’s pull together in the face of this violence and make our own space to support each other.
In the face of what “violence”? That would be Sommers’ lecture. Roger Copeland, an Oberlin professor of theater and dance, in a potential final act of his academic career, challenged the characterization of word as violence.
What I find highly objectionable about this statement is its irresponsible use of the word “violence.” Anyone who conflates the distinction between constitutionally protected speech and rape or other forms of sexual violence is doing a tremendous disservice to those who have experienced the unspeakable horror of sexual assault.
While the “irresponsible use of” words extends beyond the word “violence,” his challenging this conflation is remarkably bold on a college campus where rape happens with greater frequency than Somalia on its worst day. Aside: Oberlin is a very dangerous place. Do not let your daughters go there. Or your sons. No good will come of it.
Of course, the language has long since left definitions behind when it comes to issues like campus rape, another word devoid of meaning anymore. But then, that was incorporated in Sommers’ lecture, that meaningless words beget meaningless statistics, which in turn serves only to bolster the conclusions students so desperately need to prove, that they are the victims of all manner of harm. But even in the pantheon of victims, conflating words with violence might seem a bit of a stretch, no?
NO! Oberlin politics prof Jade Schiff straightens out Copeland’s ignorant butt.
I think Professor Copeland is missing something, but I also think the letter’s authors didn’t articulate their conception of violence clearly. Constitutionally protected speech can indeed be violent but not in same way that rape, sexual assault and related offenses are violent. While Copeland recognizes violence in the offenses, the letter writers highlight violence in responses to victims. We might call the latter “discursive violence” because it attacks victims’ experiences and their descriptions of and reactions to those experiences.
Meet “discursive violence.” It’s now a thing. The combination of discursive, meaning “of or relating to discourse,” which of course means speaking, with violence has created a phrase to “articulate their conception of violence clearly,” much like olfactory violence™, when someone’s claim of victimhood emits an unpleasant odor.
Without lifting a finger, discursive violence rejects theses experiences as inarticulate, unintelligible and illegitimate in the public sphere.
There is, already, good words to cover “inarticulate, unintelligible and illegitimate” discourse. My personal preference is “stupidity,” but only because of its clarity. It sounds a bit low brow, perhaps, but conveys the point well to almost all who read or hear it.
You have to be impressed by Schiff’s turn of a phrase. It’s not easy to create an oxymoron out of whole cloth, and doing so with a straight face (I’m guessing here that her letter to the editor was not intended as ironic, but feel pretty comfortable with my assumption) is no small feat. Sure, there have long been metaphors, that words can be “sharp,” and “cut like a knife,” to cast the use of discourse as a weapon that inflicts pain on its victims. And no discursive weapon draws more blood than truth. Empty rhetoric is easy to shake off. Truth hurts.
We are thus constrained to add to the list of words devoid of meaning “discursive violence,” and must forgive a student’s use of the less articulate concept of violence appended to the back of any word or sentence in which they desire to justify victimhood.
Even anticipatory victimhood will do, as no one apparently died as a result of Sommers’ lecture, much to the chagrin of her detractors. Some students may have wilted, judging from those who swooned into the safe space, but they may have been pretending and just sought refuge because they really like playing with puppies.
Yet, Schiff’s vicious attack on Copeland goes a step further, and warrants mention:
Copeland himself points in this direction (though he likely meant it metaphorically) when he refers to “the unspeakable horror of sexual assault.” What makes it unspeakable, in part, is a public sphere that excludes, marginalizes or derides it.
He likely meant it metaphorically? Ya think? Where Copeland sought to give the gals a tummy rub, validating their feelings and experience by describing the horror of sex after a beer as “unspeakable,” Schiff smartly rips his metaphor from his uncaring violence to prove that an expression of the depth of horror itself “marginalizes or derides it.”
In other words, no matter how existential one gets with one’s adoration of victimhood, a smart cookie like Schiff can use it against them to prove they’re a tool of the patriarchy. If you doubted the existence of discursive violence before, Schiff proves it in action, gutting Copeland’s attempt to express his requisite concern. Ouch.
If you’re one of those people who is a slave to definitions, to the obsessive need to rely on words having actual meaning, it may upset you to learn that discursive violence is now officially added to the list of words rendered meaningless by being untethered to definitions. If this causes you to be paralyzed by trauma, I beg your indulgence. I probably should have included a trigger warning up top. My bad.
Update: And now, a musical interlude by the Oberlin College Choir, which restores a bit of my faith in humanity.
H/T The College Fix