The mantra “speech is violence” got a boost from Northeastern University psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett, who sought to wrap up the argument in medical jargon to show that it’s not just feelz, but physiology.
But scientifically speaking, it’s not that simple. Words can have a powerful effect on your nervous system. Certain types of adversity, even those involving no physical contact, can make you sick, alter your brain — even kill neurons — and shorten your life.
After throwing out some medical words like proinflammatory cytokines and telomeres, she gets to her point: chronic stress. She then takes a grand leap of logic.
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. But which types?
There is little doubt that chronic stress can result in physical disability. But chronic stress is what someone feels in response to stimuli. It’s not the stimuli’s fault that someone reacts poorly to it. It’s not the stimuli’s fault that someone is so self-indulgent, so fragile, that the same stimuli that most people can shrug off as being the banal flotsam and jetsam of life strikes a singularly fragile person as so horribly stressful that they can’t bear it.
But Barrett takes the stress factor and makes a wholly baseless leap: “then it seems that speech…can be a form of violence.” That is the thesis she’s attempting to prove, and that’s the entirety of her reasoning. She never attempts to define “violence,” usually the first refuge of the dissembler to twist words to meet her feelings. It just is because “it seems.”
This may become a classic example of the logical fallacy, begging the question, as she makes a shocking and baseless connection, whereupon she relies on her own assumption to leap ahead to the next question, “But which types?”
That the New York Times allowed an op-ed premised on such a flagrant logical fallacy used to be shocking. There was a time when someone, an editor perhaps, would put up his arm and proclaim in a stentorian voice, “this is utter, unmitigated crap. It’s not going in my paper.” Good times.
Those days are gone when the purpose of an op-ed is to vindicate a belief embraced by the Gray Lady’s young Turks, and the writer has a job, like academics, that gives credence to her stance, even in the face of flagrant poverty of reasoning. After all, if the world comes down on the paper for publishing tripe, there’s always plausible deniability by pointing to her job at Northeastern.
But assuming one can shut one’s eyes very tightly and yell “lalalala” at the top of one’s lungs, until getting past this mind-blowing leap of logic, we come to censorship, Barrett-style. What types of speech does Lisa Barrett contend are violence?
What’s bad for your nervous system, in contrast, are long stretches of simmering stress. If you spend a lot of time in a harsh environment worrying about your safety, that’s the kind of stress that brings on illness and remodels your brain. That’s also true of a political climate in which groups of people endlessly hurl hateful words at one another, and of rampant bullying in school or on social media. A culture of constant, casual brutality is toxic to the body, and we suffer for it.
Well, that’s a lot of words that say absolutely nothing. Maybe an example would clarify?
That’s why it’s reasonable, scientifically speaking, not to allow a provocateur and hatemonger like Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at your school. He is part of something noxious, a campaign of abuse. There is nothing to be gained from debating him, for debate is not what he is offering.
Ah. So Milo’s speech is violence because Barrett calls it “noxious, a campaign of abuse.” So speakers whom Barrett calls names are on the violent side of the “culture of constant, casual brutality.”
On the other hand, when the political scientist Charles Murray argues that genetic factors help account for racial disparities in I.Q. scores, you might find his view to be repugnant and misguided, but it’s only offensive. It is offered as a scholarly hypothesis to be debated, not thrown like a grenade. There is a difference between permitting a culture of casual brutality and entertaining an opinion you strongly oppose. The former is a danger to a civil society (and to our health); the latter is the lifeblood of democracy.
Beyond the revelation that Barrett never read The Bell Curve, or she’s just dishonest, the other side of the line, “the lifeblood of democracy,” is a speaker whose views may be “repugnant,” but are “only offensive.” Got it now? “Noxious” is violence; “only offensive” is the lifeblood of democracy. The former is toxic. The latter is lifeblood.
By all means, we should have open conversations and vigorous debate about controversial or offensive topics. But we must also halt speech that bullies and torments. From the perspective of our brain cells, the latter is literally a form of violence.
Barrett is all for speech, “vigorous debate,” so long as she approves of the speech. Except that her argument isn’t merely incomprehensible, having drawn an utterly meaningless line of adjectives that would make Humpty Dumpty blush, but she undermines her own vapid point. If Charles Murray’s speech offends and outrages the intellectually challenged and unduly sensitive, does it not cause the same “toxic” stress that Milo’s speech causes? if chronic stress is what turns speech into violence, what difference does it make who’s doing the speaking or what the speech is?
If the stress is felt by the listener, no matter what the foundation for the delusion, what difference does it make that the speech meets with some third person’s, say Lisa Barrett’s, approval? And if this stress is harmful to a person’s physical well-being, does it change from bad harm to good harm because Barrett approves of the speech?
Or there is an entirely different way to view Barrett’s contention, putting aside the abject silliness of Barrett’s pretense of line-drawing between toxic speech and lifeblood speech: If speech affects you so strongly that the stress is unbearable, then the problem isn’t the speech, but your mental fragility. Go see a psychologist, get therapy, overcome your inability to hear words without their destroying your health because you feel them too stressful. But check first to make sure that your therapist didn’t go to Northeastern University, where she might have been taught by Lisa Feldman Barrett.