“If you ain’t first, you’re last.” This obviously untrue (but humorous) statement was made famous by Ricky Bobby, Will Ferrell’s NASCAR-driving character in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. This was the last piece of advice that Ricky’s father gave him before he walked out of his life.
So in a misguided effort to make his father proud, Ricky adopted this statement as his life’s mission. Ricky became obsessed with winning. For a while, this life principle seemed to serve Ricky well. Ricky became the top driver in NASCAR. He became wealthy, married a “smokin’ hot wife,” and had two children.
Yet, unsurprisingly, Ricky’s success didn’t last. Ricky’s narcissistic focus on winning caused him to take unnecessary risks on the track, which led to a horrific crash and the downfall of his career. It also ruined his relationship with his best friend and led to his divorce, while his two boys became unruly — albeit, highly entertaining — brats.
Chaos, brokenness, and failure are the unsurprising result of a person who builds his life on a lie.
The same can be said for a culture or society that embraces a lie.
Regrettably, a large, growing, and influential portion of our society has recently embraced another dangerous lie: “Speech is violence.”
This obviously untrue (and not-so-humorous) assertion was not posited by a movie star in a Hollywood comedy. Rather, it’s a commonly held belief by students and faculty at colleges throughout the country. And as we begin Free Speech Week, it’s a really good time to note that this is becoming more common.
For example, Lisa Feldman Barrett, a respected professor of psychology and emotion researcher at Northeastern University, published an essay on this topic in The New York Times last year. Barrett made the following assertion: “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.”
When examined closely, Barrett’s argument sounds an awful lot like it came from the mind of Ricky Bobby. Barrett argues that if words can cause stress, and stress causes harm, then words are a form of violence because they cause harm. But this idea is bunk. In The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt take Barrett’s argument and swap out “words” for other actions that cause stress such as “breaking up with your girlfriend” or “giving students a lot of homework.”
Both of these actions can cause stress, and stress can cause harm, so both can cause harm. But this does not mean that these are violent acts.
For anyone familiar with the chaotic events that have erupted on college campuses over the last several years, the consequences of believing in this lie are apparent. And often, schools make things worse by imposing censorious speech codes or marking off stifling “speech zones,” such as at Kennesaw State University, where students were only allowed free speech on 0.08 percent of the 405-acre campus before the Alliance Defending Freedom Center for Academic Freedom got involved.
When students are taught that speech is violence, then students will believe that engaging in actual violence to prevent speech that the students disagree with is justified because it is self-defense.
Sadly, the chaos and violence we’ve seen on college campuses hasn’t convinced many students of the madness behind the “speech is violence” trope. Several days after one high-profile incident, UC-Berkeley’s leading student newspaper published a series of five op-eds under the theme, Violence as Self-Defense. One of the essays justified the violence as follows: “Asking people to maintain peaceful dialogue with those who legitimately do not think their lives matter is a violent act.”
What these students fail to comprehend is that if words are equivalent to violence, and thus actual physical violence is justified in responding to pure speech, then civil society as we know it will no longer exist. If we as a free people can no longer advocate for change in society through the spoken word — even offensive words — then the only option left to enact such change is through violence. And as the incident at Berkeley demonstrated, that is not an attractive option.
At the end of Talladega Nights, Ricky Bobby’s absentee dad reappears to disabuse Ricky of his life’s motto. “Well that don’t make any sense at all,” he tells him. “You can be first, you can be second, you can be third, fourth … you can even be fifth!”
The “speech is violence” trope is every bit as misguided as Ricky Bobby’s operative life mission. The major difference is that this is happening in real life, and it is tearing apart major portions of our society as we speak.
It’s time we follow Ricky Bobby’s example and ditch this poisonous idea once and for all.
Tyson Langhofer is senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, where he directs the ADF Center for Academic Freedom.