The New York Times editorial board is trash. This is why I unsubscribed from the NYT in the first place. They publish poorly argued propaganda pieces, some of them written by terrorists. The article that pushed me over the edge when I unsubscribed was some postmodern BS about how free speech really means just free speech for the privileged, and that censorship of the privileged is necessary for everyone else to be truly free. Yesterday they published an article that disguises the same censorious reasoning in a cloak of moderation.
Imagine that a bully threatens to punch you in the face. A week later, he walks up to you and breaks your nose with his fist. Which is more harmful: the punch or the threat?
It’s obviously the punch. The only reason the threat has any meaning for you is that it tells you that a punch is coming. The harm of the threat is derived from what is being threatened. This is why direct threats are not protected speech under the First Amendment. They are not just offensive words, but an indication of intent to commit an act of violence.
But Ms. Barrett isn’t so sure which is worse:
[S]cientifically 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 sick, alter your brain — even kill neurons — and shorten your life.
Your body’s immune system includes little proteins called proinflammatory cytokines that cause inflammation when you’re physically injured. Under certain conditions, however, these cytokines themselves can cause physical illness. What are those conditions? One of them is chronic stress.
Okay, so all of those things might be true, but if someone punches you in the head hard enough, you can die. Whatever harm might be caused to you by the threat is nothing compared to the harm of actual violence. This is why we get stressed when threatened. Our body is preparing for Fight or Flight so that we don’t get killed. Surely Ms. Barrett, a psychology professor, knows this and is just being disingenuous.
And this is where the article makes its key inference:
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?
Whoa, there. Something in this seems fishy. Is it always violence to cause someone physical harm? Is it always the words themselves causing the stress? And isn’t there somewhat of an important difference between stress and prolonged stress? Ms. Barrett obviously has an agenda, which is to give pro-censorship arguments a semblance of scientific legitimacy. That’s why she’s able to make such a flawed inference. That speech can sometimes be violent is a foregone conclusion, for her.
But let’s continue hearing her out. Tell us, Ms. Barrett, what kinds of speech can be violent?
The scientific findings I described above provide empirical guidance for which kinds of controversial speech should and shouldn’t be acceptable on campus and in civil society. In short, the answer depends on whether the speech is abusive or merely offensive.
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.
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.
I’m okay with the abuse/offense distinction. I think that’s real and useful. My problem is how she defines the difference between abuse and offense. It has nothing to do with the words themselves or the ideas they express and everything to do with the effect they happen to have on whoever hears them. Offensiveness merely causes “periodic bouts of stress,” while abuse causes “long stretches of simmering stress.” Given Ms. Barrett’s inference above, this makes sense. It is only prolonged stress that causes physical harm, so the only words that should be considered violent are the ones that cause prolonged stress.
But this line of argument is fundamentally no different from saying that speech that makes me feel bad should not be allowed unless I get to encounter it on my terms, with a trigger warning and therapy dogs handy, or not at all. If the psychological harm caused by the speech is the metric by which we decide which speech is violent, then those who are psychologically weakest get to veto any speech that causes them stress. But as far as I’m concerned, the fact that my opinions cause them stress (even if it’s prolonged) doesn’t necessarily mean I shouldn’t express my opinions; it might just as well mean that they need to grow a thicker skin and stop being a baby.
Why can’t we just stick with the Court’s established First Amendment jurisprudence? Why is it not enough to say that direct threats and fighting words are not protected speech? What else is there for us to prohibit?
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.
Oh, of course. Provocation and hatemongering shouldn’t be allowed. Never mind that provocation can sometimes be useful, and that not much of what Milo is doing can be reasonably described as hatemongering. But wait a minute, if Milo’s speech really is so bad, then why don’t you just not listen to him? Why must you storm into his event and make a racket so that no one else can hear him? If the psychological harm is really the issue, then the snowflakes should be fine to just stay in their room listening to calming nature sounds on Spotify, coloring, and doing yoga until the bad man goes away.
And this is where it becomes clear that this shoddy argument was never fundamentally about protecting people from prolonged stress, but about justifying censorship on any grounds possible. You don’t have to go listen to Milo Yiannopoulos speak when YAF invites him to campus. But you go anyway and try to shut him down, because you’re not motivated by safety, but by power. The power to decide who can speak and who cannot. It just so happens that pretending to be weak and emotionally fragile is a great way to get people on your side, these days. Appearing weak is the key to gaining power.
That’s what most of these arguments seem to come down to. They are appeals to things that we all want, such as safety, well-being, and civility. But when you examine them closely, it becomes apparent that those making the arguments are interested most of all in power, and that safety, well-being, civility, et al. are just means to that end. Don’t be fooled.