Although free speech remains a constitutionally protected right in the U.S., the idea that speech can be a form of violence has gained footing in recent years. This is a particularly prevalent view among younger, highly-educated Americans: in one survey of college students [nationalreview.com], 81% of respondents agreed that speech could be a form of violence.
The conflation of speech and violence has also been promoted by mainstream media outlets, most notably the New York Times. One essay claimed to make a scientific case [nytimes.com] the idea of speech as violence: "If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech — at least certain types of speech — can be a form of violence."
Another essay, titled "Free Speech Is Killing Us [nytimes.com]; takes a slightly different tack, pointing to incidents in which violence was preceded by hateful speech as evidence that speech itself is dangerous: "I no longer have any doubt that the brutality that germinates on the internet can leap into the world of flesh and blood," writes the author. "Noxious speech is causing tangible harm."
Despite the veneer of legitimacy offered by the NYT, the arguments for redefining speech as a form of violence are either fallacious or unsupported by data. The "scientific" claim that words cause stress, and stress causes harm, is particularly shaky. [nymag.com] The studies that purport to show a link between offensive speech and physically harmful stress do not actually examine the effects of, say, reading an upsetting op-ed or listening to a speaker with whom one disagrees; rather, they examine the effects of chronic stress on the health of children who were raised in harsh, neglectful, abusive homes. A New York Magazine rebuttal points out the problems with this apples-to-oranges comparison: "One situation involves a level of chronic stress that is inflicted on you against your will and which really could harm you in the long run; the other doesn’t."
Even in cases where a violent act appears downstream from an incidence of offensive speech, to describe the speech itself as violence requires ignoring both legal and human principles that recognize them as fundamentally different. The entire concept of free speech is founded in the recognition of a bright line between discussions or depictions of violence (even those that people find provocative, offensive, or upsetting) and violence itself, and the value of preserving that distinction is apparent across party lines. Whether it's the edgelord posting of the alt-right or the guillotine memes of the socialist left, speech exists on a separate spectrum from violence. For an extreme example, consider the photograph in which Kathy Griffin posed with a prosthetic made to look like the severed head of Donald Trump: although many people found the photo horrifying, and although Trump himself dearly wanted to prosecute Griffin for producing it, it was still protected speech — precisely because a work of art depicting a severed head is not the same, in any respect, as literally cutting someone's head off.
The quest to redefine speech as violence may be rooted in legitimate frustration: articulating better arguments in response to bad ones is an exhausting and never ending task that requires patience, energy, and a willingness to engage with disagreeable people and ideas. It is tempting, under those circumstances, to seek an easier way to shut down offensive speech — either by criminalizing it, or by making it acceptable to commit violent acts against the speaker as a form of self-defense. But not only are the arguments in favor of characterizing speech as violence factually flawed, the value of preserving a distinction between the two continues to be clear.