Words Aren’t Violence

The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal

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.

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