The Dangerous Consequences of Equating Speech With Violence

There is dangerous train of thought popping up on college campuses, one that believes that speech can by akin to violence. Specifically, there is a growing conversation among academics about speech that is upsetting to a particular identity group can be physically hurtful, and thus should be banned from college campuses. 

The most prominent example of this train of thought comes in a recent New York Times article by sociologist Lisa Feldman Barrett. In it, Barrett posits that, “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.”

From there Barrett attempts to narrow down the kinds of “controversial speech” that should and should not be allowed. On the one hand, there are expressions of “distasteful perspective” that create a “good kind of stress — temporary and not harmful to your body — and [from which] you reap the longer-term benefits of learning.” On the other, there is speech that causes “long stretches of simmering stress,” which “brings on illness and remodels your brain.”

This dichotomy allows her to come to a disturbing and not at all logical conclusion.

“That’s why it’s reasonable, scientifically speaking, not to allow a provocateur and hate monger like Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at your school,” Barrett writes. “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.”

Don’t be fooled. This is neither reasonable nor science. Instead, it is nonsense dressed up as pseudoscience, bending facts and research in order to reach the desired goal: The justification for censorship.

The problem with Barrett’s analysis, as Jesse Singal writes in New York Magazine, is that the studies she cites are focused on chronic stress environments that are not at all analogous to college campuses, and speech that is not at all comparable to an unpopular guest lecture or a politically volatile topic.

Setting aside the fact that no one will ever be able to agree on what’s “abusive” versus what’s “merely offensive,” the articles Barrett links to are mostly about chronic stress — the stress elicited by, for example, spending one’s childhood in an impoverished environment of serious neglect and violence. Growing up in a dangerous neighborhood with a poor single mother who has to work so much she doesn’t have time to nurture you is not the same as being a college student at a campus where Yiannopoulos is coming to speak, and where you are free to ignore him or to protest his presence there. One situation involves a level of chronic stress that is inflicted on you against your will and which really could harm you in the long run; the other doesn’t.

Barrett is thus presented with a Gordian knot. She wants to claim that speech she doesn’t like is akin to physical violence, but can’t because the research is focused on chronic stress of the environmental sort. And so is she forced to argue that speech can be part of a “campaign of abuse,” a term she conjures out of nothing in order to justify the curtailment of individual’s First Amendment rights.

Where does this begin or end? Barrett attempts to portray a difference between a provocateur like Milo Yiannopoulos and a controversial academic such as Charles Murray. But who makes that choice? Who should students, or society, entrust with the responsibility of deciding what falls into the “campaign of abuse” and what should not? And what counts as abuse? If a speech “triggers” one person, or ten, or a hundred, does it cross the threshold into violence?

These are questions that liberals, like Barrett, never take the time to answer. Apparently college is such an atmosphere of imminent peril that we censor first and ask questions later.

The stakes are too high to treat this idea with quiet respect. The foundation of our higher education system is the ability to wrestle with difficult ideas. Pushing students beyond their boundaries, testing their preexisting assumptions, and asking them to vigorously defend their beliefs is what learning is all about. The notion that disagreeable speech is akin to violence is the next step toward morphing campuses from hotbeds of curiosity to uniform echo chambers. We must not allow it.