Mistaking Speech For Violence (2017 Sep)

by Barry A. Liebling

For a long time many colleges and universities, especially the most famous and prestigious, have been openly hostile to the principle of free speech. The dominant culture on campus is inspired by the leftist world-view, and anyone who dares to express an opinion that is at odds with it is not welcome to speak. There are many instances of speakers (conservatives, libertarians, entertainers who criticizes leftist politics, or anyone who is despised by committed “social justice warriors”) being shouted down, harassed, and prevented from giving their talk.

And the default justification for expelling speakers who defy the left progressive narrative is they are noxious, make students feel unsafe, constitute an aggression against delicate students who simply cannot cope with assertions that contradict the political catechisms they have been fed at least since elementary school.

But free speech advocates (there are a few, but not enough) counter by saying that everyone should be allowed to be heard. Proscribing speech is one of the first things totalitarian regimes do to quash their opponents. If someone comes on campus and makes abhorrent statements you can argue back, ignore him or her, or avoid attending the talk in the first place. The social justice crowd needs a stronger rationale than “I don’t like it” to shut down speakers who belong to an out-group.

Enter Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett, a distinguished professor of psychology at Northeastern University. In a column for The New York Times she argues that speech sometimes is violence and when it is there is justification to forcefully stop it. Dr Barrett is highly adept at applying scientism – using scientific terms and appealing to “scientific authority” inappropriately – to bolster her political objectives. She starts with genuine scientific findings and twists them to support her personal agenda – to ban speech she does not like. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/14/opinion/sunday/when-is-speech-violence.html

Let’s begin with the science. The professor points out correctly that chronic stress can lead to shorter telemeres which in turn is damaging to life. So far, so good. Then Dr Barrett slips in her key assertion that being exposed to “abusive speech” as contrasted with “merely offensive speech” inflicts chronic stress, is physically harmful, and should count as violence.

What exactly is the definition of “abusive speech?” How is a non-expert (different from Dr Barrett) supposed to tell the difference between “abusive speech” and “merely offensive speech?” Apparently the professor and her colleagues are eager to arbitrate and label, using their “scientific” credentials, when speech enters the abusive zone. Dr Barrett makes a point of asserting that speech is harmful if it is part of “long stretches of simmering stress.” If so, does this suggest that a one-time talk on campus by a speaker who uses “abusive speech” does not put tender students in peril? If it takes a long time to damage the listener what is the risk of hearing someone speak “abusively” as part of one prepared talk?

Since the professor is an active member of the “scientific community” it is fair to hold her to her own standards. What is the evidence that “abusive speech” especially in small doses (as might be delivered by someone on a university campus) reduces the length of telemeres? As an advocate for free speech the topic of telemeres being affected by an obnoxious presentation does not enter my mind. However, once she asserts that this is the basis for her argument Dr Barrett is obligated to back up her assertion. I do not find her hypothesis plausible, but I am eager to examine properly designed and executed research that supports her claim. I expect to wait for a long time.

It is clear that Dr Barrett is interested in protecting her leftist friends from harm. She wants to shelter them from content they find distasteful or might cause them to doubt the certainty of their positions. But if we take the professor at her word that “long stretches of simmering stress” is “toxic to the body” we should examine additional instances of potential harm. Suppose a student who is not a member of the leftist political cabal is endlessly called a fascist, a sexist, a racist, a homophobe. Suppose that student is frightened to speak out and express his or her views. In the world of Professor Barrett does that count as genuine violence? Should that type of name-calling be officially banned on campus, and should all outside speakers be prohibited from delivering content on campus if they use that rhetoric? Probably not. Note well that Dr Barrett’s scientism is designed to enable leftist political activists and to intimidate their opponents. If a conservative or libertarian student is affronted or even harmed by relentless insults (“simmering stress”) the student probably deserves it. After all, targeting students who are representatives of “oppressing classes” is simply social justice. Defying the leftist hive must result in swift punishments.

Dr Barrett’s column suggests that she is against violence, and I believe she is sincere. But if her supporters take her assertion seriously their propensity for violence will be energized. Under ordinary circumstances it is difficult to justify using force against someone who says things you do not like. But the professor has proclaimed – and has given her scientific stamp of authenticity – that “abusive speech” is the same as real violence. Dr Barrett’s leftist admirers now have an added excuse to physically attack people who are saying things they do not approve of. If some words are “actual violence” then responding to them with real violence is “only fair.”

For a long time the most elite colleges and universities have demonstrated little tolerance for speech that does not conform to the progressive-left agenda. Providing a fake scientific argument that banning “abusive speech” is justified can only make the situation worse. It is not too late for free speech advocates to step up and persuasively make their case. And it is certainly not too soon.

*** See other entries at AlertMindPublishing.com in “Monthly Columns.” ***

Comments are closed.