“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” — John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

I remember, when I was at Calvin, learning about “performative utterances.” The concept comes from J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words. Performative utterances, as Austin defines them, are words or sentences that do more than communicate. They do. The expression itself is a part of an action.

The classic example is saying “I do” as part of one’s wedding vows. Other examples might include naming your child, making a bet, or an umpire declaring a pitch a “strike.”

Since I learned about performative utterances, I’ve thought about how swears and slurs seem to fit into that category. Earlier today, I was by myself, walking down my snow-covered (thanks, Minnesota) back stairs and slipped. I caught myself on the hand-rail and swore. Who was I talking to?

The more you dig into linguistic theory, the more you realize that the words you say, hear, read, or write often do much more than carry information. And critically among these varied functions for language is the infliction of pain or harm. As a parent may tritely tell their young child, words can hurt. 

Free speech is a concept that’s been on my mind a lot this year, especially in the past few weeks. With protesters and counterprotesters, discussions over “political correctness,” and flippant nicknames for a serious virus, I keep wondering to myself what the difference is between exercising freedom of expression and just saying whatever the hell we want without consequences.

An article recently shared by the Calvin University English Department, discussing free speech in the light of recent events in France, prompted me to dig into the subject even further. Are there specific rules about where freedom of expression falls short? Are there some things you really can’t say?

It turns out, yes. Or at least sort of. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that the exercise of freedom of expression carries “special duties and responsibilities,” and so there are certain things you might actually not be able to say if they violate someone else’s rights. In other words, you can’t necessarily say whatever you want if the action of saying it might cause someone else harm. 

Don’t cause someone else harm. That sounds like a really good place to start. Although a potential problem with this approach is that whether or not a message actually does harm to someone can be difficult to prove unequivocally. I have my arguments for why I think some messages cause harm and others don’t, but they’re just that. Arguments.

And how to react to the attack on the French professor? The liberal in me wants to speak against religious extremism, but also speak in defense of victimized minorities. It seems as though both parties did harm, though of different kinds.

It strikes me how much the United States, as a culture, values “freedom” as an ideal but struggles to define it. I think freedom is sort of a paradox. In order for a society to be free, an individual must be, in certain ways, not free. An individual is not free to express, for example, a racial slur if the act of expressing it would cause harm and deny certain aspects of freedom to another.

I find it more helpful to idealize not freedom, but balance. Or maybe I’ve just been watching too much Avatar.

Expression in balance. I like that. Protest, argue, speak out. Hell, get angry. These are the speech acts of a just society. But be mindful of causing harm, knowing especially that your words may cause harm even if you don’t mean them to. And be prepared to concede if that happens.


  1. Avatar

    Great job,Alex! Something to think about – chose your words wisely!

    • Alex Westenbroek

      Thank you so much, grandma. xoxo

  2. Avatar

    Great subject, especially in today’s climate.

  3. Kyric Koning

    “And be prepared to concede.” That hits the crux of the matter. Too often we so much think we’re right, focused on being “right” that anything that contradicts that is seen as an attack. And that’s a scary place to be.

    A well balanced, well thought article.

    (And you can never watch too much Avatar).

  4. Alex Johnson

    Poem for you: “fleeing” by Kara Jackson. She says, “what / is the absence of freedom but an assumption of it?”

    Freedom is a subject I have many complicated feelings on, but I’ve found that poetry wrestles with it the best (besides ATLA, obviously).


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