No, Professor, Words Are Not Violence

The excuse we have often heard for raucous campus protests over the last few years is that they are justified as a way of countering the “violence” of speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos and Charles Murray. To prevent them from speaking is, according to this line of argument, using mere sound to eliminate the actual harm that the words of such individuals would do to vulnerable members of the campus community.

You might be inclined to dismiss the notion that words can be violence as one of those ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe it. In that case, here is the intellectual you’re looking for—Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern University.

In her recent New York Times article entitled “When Is Speech Violence?” Barrett contends that speech that “bullies and torments” ought to be prevented because “from the perspective of our brain cells,” it is “literally a form of violence.” She points to scientific findings showing that “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.”

Professor Barrett is a respected psychologist and she cites studies in neuroscience that support her statement that verbal abuse can bring on stress that causes physical damage. Let’s not question the science she cites. Let’s agree that she is correct in saying that chronic stress is bad for an individual, perhaps even life-shortening.

The problem is that there is no apparent connection between chronic stress and merely listening to someone speak, for a while, no matter how provocative his words may be.

Professor Barrett’s data pertain to studies showing how prolonged stress undermines health, but what does that have to do with the short-term exposure to a speaker who says things that are, for some students, upsetting? Her data just don’t lead to her conclusion that college students must be protected against certain speech.

In fact, her own words undermine the case for protecting students against speakers who make upsetting arguments:

Offensiveness is not bad for your body and brain. Your nervous system evolved to withstand periodic bouts of stress, such as fleeing from a tiger, taking a punch, or encountering an odious idea in a university lecture. Entertaining someone else’s distasteful perspective can be educational. When you’re forced to engage a position you strongly disagree with, you learn something about the other perspective, as well as your own.

John Stuart Mill would have agreed completely. He maintained in perhaps his most famous work, On Liberty, that it is good for the mind to counter ideas that it finds disagreeable, even outrageous. It is healthy mental exercise to have to think through your reasons for opposing another person’s argument. And sometimes you find that your own position has some holes in it.

But after making the sensible point that offensiveness isn’t necessarily bad for a person, Barrett makes an unjustified leap, stating that a line can and should be drawn between speakers who challenge listeners with debatable ideas and those who just speak hatred and abuse.

In the former camp she puts the well-known scholar Charles Murray (although decried as a person who spews racial hatred by the Southern Poverty Law Center; see Murray sparring with SPLC here), and in the latter, Milo Yiannopoulos. Of Yiannopoulos, Barrett writes that he is “part of something noxious, a campaign of abuse.”

We will come back to her blurry line between acceptable and unacceptable speakers, but the immediate problem with Barrett’s thesis is that even if a speaker gives the listeners nothing but undiluted hatred (let’s say advocating arresting all Muslims and putting them in internment camps indefinitely), that doesn’t mean listeners would be physically harmed by such a talk.

That’ s a point that Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff make in their rejoinder to Barrett in the Atlantic“Why It’s a Bad Idea to Tell Students Words Are Violence.” They observe that in calling for schools to prevent “harmful” speech, she has forgotten “the contrast between short- and long-term stressors.” A campus talk, they note, is over in less than two hours and any student feeling traumatized could walk out at any time.

There’s no chronic stress from any kind of campus talk. The science Barrett relies on provides no reason to keep even the most extreme of speakers away. All she has done is to validate, Haidt and Lukianoff write, “a new set of ideas on campus [that has] taught students to see oppression and violence wherever they look.”

And now back to Barrett’s example of a speaker who is so terrible that he should be kept from speaking—Milo Yiannopoulos. He seems to be more of a gadfly than a scholar, someone who enjoys zingers like, “The only reason people become feminists is because they’re physically unattractive.” That was among the lines he was able to get off at a talk at DePaul University last year before the event was disrupted by student activists.

In a Chicago Tribune column published right after that, Eric Zorn wrote of Yiannopoulos’s taunts, “He says them in a devilishly clever way, a way designed to provoke indignant overreaction from the left and shocked delight from the right.” What is harmful to one’s well-being in listening to some of that? And why would it be any worse than listening to a provocative speech by a far-left Democrat declaring that Trump and his supporters are fascists?

Barrett’s case in favor of preventing some campus talks because they supposedly cause physical harm is not at all persuasive. The trouble is that it doesn’t have to be persuasive to have an impact.

Next fall when colleges are again hosting speakers, we can expect campus activists who like excuses for blocking those who oppose their “progressivism” to quote Professor Barrett: “Words can be violence.” They won’t bother themselves with her distinction between speakers who are scholarly enough to host and those who are too “noxious” to tolerate. Any speaker who challenges leftist beliefs will be fair game for the “speech is violence” objection to his presence on campus.

By lending a scientific veneer of respectability to the notion that words are weapons, Professor Barrett has undermined the already weakened foundations of free speech and robust debate.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    All this is starting to look like the extension of childhood — the halcyon days of “fun, fun, fun,” and not a care in the world (actually, there was only the world of “fun, fun, fun” punctuated by summer camp) now including college. Lazy river, Disney-like environments. That sort of thing. Maybe even disappearing adulthood. Declining family formation. That sort of thing.

    If this “extension of childhood” is true, it would explain its counter-part — the increase of paternalistic institutions, of all kinds. Seems to me that someone has already written a book on this …. who was that?

    • I’d agree. This past election seems to be one for the ages, delineating the adults from the children like no political event before. Coddled infants, long sheltered in cocoons who got whatever they wanted by throwing temper tantrums and who thought whatever they said must be true because it sounded like it could be true, are suddenly discovering there are adults outside of these cocoons who DON’T cave in to tantrums and who have the audacity to challenge these infants to support what they say.

      This intensely hurts the infants’ widdle feewings because ….. well, they just aren’t grown up yet. Call one or more of my assertions about the global warming issue “crazy”, for example, and I’ll be glad to discuss why I think my position is sound; it’s the adult thing to do. Call one of these infants’ positions “crazy” and they do one of two things, either retreat to some wacko safe space, or lash out at you with the nearest available blunt instrument. It’s what infants do.

      • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

        Thank you for expanding on this. Yes, the election results shocked “Coddled infants, long sheltered in cocoons” for sure. And I do not intend to be mean or snarky about it — it’s just that the “cognitive protections” for bringing up children have extended now into adulthood — well into adulthood. I just never saw this PC stuff as part of this progression — the prolongation of childhood and adolescence — and not necessarily the other way around.
        I once got hold of a number of volumes on “The History of Childhood” and it alerted me to how malleable childhood is, how it is shaped by culture. That process is evident here as well, encompassing young adulthood. No wonder employers are skittish about hiring millennials.

        Thanks again for clarifying this observation for me. I am in your debt.

  • John Staddon
    • Great minds think alike!

      • John Staddon

        Thanks, Jenna. A version of my comment came out in The Federalist a while back.
        Cheers, John

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      Great response. I especially liked the comparison between Galton and Barrett — both, in their own way, warn(ed) of an oncoming apocalypse, like the eugenist’s racial apocalypse.

      Another failing of Barrett’s studies are that they completely erase the mediating influence of society, human or primate. Language itself — which words are a part of — is a cultural artifact and social construct, as are the meanings associated with words. Social context is meaning, not “words.” Status, rank, access to resources, prestige — all these play a bigger role in emotional outcomes than “words”. Barrett has failed to take these socially determinative factors into account.

  • John G. Maguire

    Beautiful and restrained argument, George. Thanks for pointing out the truly unfair conflation of a short-term stress with chronic emotional stress. Once you accept the falsehood that words are violence, then it’s a short step to using real violence (assassination, for instance) against people who speak words that irk you. We exist as a nation because we do not do that. In the modern world, we discuss and argue and kill each other’s arguments and theories, as Karl. Popper said, to escape the dark ages where we killed each other. Your shallow professor at Northeastern is arguing for a return to the dark ages, at best.

  • roycordato

    And violence is not free speech.

  • bdavi52

    Yes…but also a most definite no.

    Mr. Leef suggests that “The problem (with Prof. Barrett’s, so-called analysis) is that there is no apparent connection between chronic stress and merely listening to someone speak, for a while, no matter how provocative his words may be.” No, that is not the problem.

    The problem is the extraordinarily false equivalency Barret builds between the mental/emotional stress suffered as a consequence of hearing something unpleasant, distasteful, unwanted, or hateful (And no one would deny that any of us can and do feel such stress) and the physical pain and physical damage suffered as a consequence of a physically violent attack which always carries with it the threat of actual physical extinction. There is no equivalence.

    There is a vast and chasmic difference between the tangible and the intangible ….between the real and the imagined. We may feel as though we’re risking our lives on a roller coaster as it dips through impossible valleys and climbs impossible peaks — but we’re not. It’s a thrill ride designed to simulate mortal risk not actually expose one to mortal risk. We may feel horrible hurt (even to the point of tears & hyperventilation) when some cruel someone tells us, “You’re stupid!”…but we have not been physically horribly hurt (we’ve only had our emotional/psychological selves ‘hurt’). Nor have we encountered even the possibility of mortal danger.

    As generation after generation has been told by some irate parent, fed-up with a child crying in response to a verbal reprimand: “You think being told NO is painful…. come over here and I’ll give you something real to cry about!” And the child very much understands that what he has suffered so far (a harsh word, a verbal correction that made him ‘feel’ bad) is NOTHING in comparison to what a swat on the behind feels like.

    Fundamentally, once again, what we are discussing is Relativist Confusion. There is a difference between what we think is real and what is actually, physically real & present. There is a difference between a harsh word and a punch in the nose. And as emotionally painful & stressful as a harsh word might be, it does not draw blood, it does not risk mortal damage. And in this country (and the rest of the real world) it’s absolutely permissible to say nasty things….it’s just not permissible to perform nasty acts which have very real & very nasty (and highly illegal) consequences.

    Prof. Barrett may be a “respected psychologist” in the insular world of academic psychology….but she is also a fool.

    Perhaps my use of that terms makes her feel bad; perhaps (if she reads that) she will feel verbally attacked; perhaps her blood pressure will rise and heart rate increase; perhaps some adrenaline will pump into her system and mess with her metabolism for just a second. But all that is on her, not me…for she is entirely free to ignore it, dismiss it, argue against it, or counter such a blind assertion with one of her own (while waggling her fingers in her ears, and sticking out her tongue). Me? I will simply say what we all said on the playground: “Sticks & stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”.

    • Tom Billings

      “Fundamentally, once again, what we are discussing is Relativist
      Confusion. There is a difference between what we think is real and what
      is actually, physically real & present.”

      Here is a real problem. The human brain experiences emotional pain and physical pain in the same circuits of the brain. Until another part of the brain steps in and makes a distinction, the pain is the same intensity for most. Pulling out a speaker’s microphone is looked at as the same as putting out the bedclothes on fire in your dorm room that burned you. What is happening in schools is that students are being trained to *refuse* any distinction. The movement begun 50 years ago for “If you feel it, it’s real!”, has triumphed in most of academia.

      • bdavi52

        Horribly & pathetically true. We plummet down a very slippery slope towards a very dark future.

  • Brandon Heller

    A speaker can not be responsible for how a listener reacts to his words. There are much better adjectives than violence for describing hurtful speech. Perhaps a week or two on the front lines in Syria would bring things better into perspective.

  • DrOfnothing

    Milo Yiannopoulos should not be welcomed on university campuses because he advocated child sexual abuse. Whether or not words are violence is immaterial in his case. He is a toxic, detestable, preening narcissist, and Leef’s continued elevation of him to the status of a worthwhile “thinker” is inexcusable.

  • DrOfnothing

    Milo Yiannopoulos should not be welcomed on university campuses because he is a toxic, detestable, preening narcissist who has nothing substantive to add to the conversation. Whether or not words are violence is immaterial in his case. His “zingers” have included statements supporting paedophilia, and he has been roundly denounced by Conservatives. I’m not asserting that he doesn’t have the right so speak, simply that no moral or sensible person would want to listen to what he has to say.

    • Alastair J. Archibald

      Then don’t go. On the one hand, you are saying Milo should not be welcomed on campus, on the other that you are not asserting that he does not have the right to speak.

      Milo Yiannopoulos’ speeches are well-attended. Are you saying that all those people are immoral and senseless? Or just that they have a different opinion from yours?

      • DrOfnothing

        You’ve got it in one. There’s a great difference between the decision to invite to campus informed speakers from a spectrum of viewpoints and the decision to bring a narcissistic, self-aggrandising demagogue. No one is preventing Milo from appearing in public, on television, on radio, etc. His free speech is not being limited. On the other hand, if colleges and universities are supposed to encourage dialogue that is both informed and civil, he is neither.

        In sum, there has to be sum standard for those invited, and paid, to speak on college campuses. That standard should not be an ideological one, but one of expertise, relevance, and constructive approach to the issues under discussion. People like Milo, who act offensively because they enjoy the attention, are simply infantile and set the poorest possible example for students.