The Softer They Come, The Harder They Fall

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 sickalter 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.

28 thoughts on “The Softer They Come, The Harder They Fall

  1. Richard Kopf


    Terminal stupidity and its accomplice terminal absurdity are violently and literally killing me. The New York Times editorial staff and op-ed writers are an accessory after the fact to my death. It won’t be long now.

    All the best.


  2. Scott Jacobs

    Turns out the studies she used were fairly pathetic as well, one being about rats, another about baboons, and two were about ‘hurtful words’ and such and their effect on small children (no not merely speech).

      1. Scott Jacobs

        Yes, but speech at a level that achieves the “health damage” the good prof speaks of also involves prolonged exposure to negative nonverbal cues and such, and so fails her “speech can be bad, m’kay” theory.

        Also, don’t go pushing your values on me, maaaaaaaaaaan.

  3. Scott Jacobs

    Certain types of adversity, even those involving no physical contact, can make you sick, alter your brain — even kill neurons — and shorten your life.

    I will pay real cash money if one of her students will use this as the basis for a complaint to the school about how her class is causing him harm because they have to take tests and do homework.

    I mean, surely she must mark wrong answers as wrong, yeah? What sort of damage is such adversity doing to these kids?

    1. Jerry1957

      Scott, great idea. Let me know how much $$$ it takes to convince a snowflake to file such a complaint and I’ll pay half.

  4. Jim Tyre

    I really don’t understand why Barrett and others can get away with such tripe. An extremely famous and thoroughly peer reviewed study that has never been debunked disposed of the issue forever. The conclusion of that study:

    Sticks and stones may break my bones, but ….

  5. Patrick Maupin

    … 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.

    Any bets on how long until some plaintiffs’ bar pimp pays this expert harlot for testilying about his eggshell client?

  6. Fubar

    Barrett is all for speech, “vigorous debate,” so long as she approves of the speech.

    Debate, vigorous, vast and complex,
    With religious believers to vex,
    And complete orchestration
    To full consummation:
    Free speech means more violins and sects!¹

    FN 1: And more cowbell.

  7. rsf

    “noxious, a campaign of abuse.”
    This type of language is triggering to me. I feel bullied and hurt. I think my lifespan has been shortened. Expect lawsuits to fly! You can’t go infringing on my right to be free from anything I find offensive, stressful, or degrading at any given moment like that.

  8. B. McLeod

    “But which types?” I am surprised she has not already been briefed on the AP Style Manual.

  9. Corey

    Every psych professor was this nuts when I went to Northeastern. Nice to see some things never change.

    1. SHG Post author

      Having spent a great deal of time working with psychologists on cases, it’s all of them, not just Northeastern.

  10. Sacho

    Lisa Barrett doesn’t seem all too concerned about the feelings of Milo, and you can certainly describe the deluge of newspaper articles describing him as the worst scum of the Earth a “campaign of abuse”. I would guess that she invented the Murray exception when she realized the circularity of her argument. We should silence the plebs, but academic speech is vital to the nation, or as the old saying goes, vox academia, vox Dei.

    1. Dave

      Milo should sue Barrett for damages – current and future, mental and physical – and use her own writing to make his case. He who files first wins!

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