NYT: Speech, Violence – What’s the Diff?

It’s ironic when a business that depends on the free speech rights guaranteed under the First Amendment presents an argument that undermines that core liberty–but that’s the New York Times for you.  In an op-ed written by Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, the Newspaper of Record attempts to rationalize the social justice canard that equates speech with violence, thus making censorship in certain circumstances not only justified, but scientifically so.  No, really:

Your body also contains little packets of genetic material that sit on the ends of your chromosomes. They’re called telomeres. Each time your cells divide, their telomeres get a little shorter, and when they become too short, you die. This is normal aging. But guess what else shrinks your telomeres? Chronic stress.

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.

You know what else causes chronic stress?  Having a job.  And having kids.  You own a house with a mortgage and you practically have a license to feel stressed.  Granted, sometimes I feel like I’m getting spanked by Fannie Mae, but does that mean she’s actually taking the paddle to my cheeks?

Barrett elucidates:

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.

Whew, I’m glad we cleared that up!  Just one question:  what constitutes abusive speech versus offensive speech?

[I]t’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.

On the other hand, when the political scientist Charles Murray argues that genetic factors help account for racial disparities in I.Q. scores, you might find his view to be repugnant and misguided, but it’s only offensive. It is offered as a scholarly hypothesis to be debated, not thrown like a grenade. There is a difference between permitting a culture of casual brutality and entertaining an opinion you strongly oppose. The former is a danger to a civil society (and to our health); the latter is the lifeblood of democracy.

So Murray is okay because he’s offering a scientific theory that makes some people uncomfortable, but Milo is abusive because he just tosses out obnoxious non-sequiturs that he uses to shut down debate.  By that standard, couldn’t you lump Al Gore in with the abusive crowd?  After all, he has flatly stated that the time to debate global warming is over–and with all the ecological disasters Gore has predicted, he sure has caused a lot of stress.  Does that make An Inconvenient Truth torture porn?  Maybe we should pull that movie out of our schools before somebody gets triggered.

Barrett concludes:

By all means, we should have open conversations and vigorous debate about controversial or offensive topics. But we must also halt speech that bullies and torments. From the perspective of our brain cells, the latter is literally a form of violence.

Translation:  Yes, by all means we should have open conversations–but only about the stuff that I deem appropriate.  Because all of you, even though you’re supposed to be functioning adults in a world filled with stress, are incapable of sorting free speech from harmful speech by yourselves.  In other words, you simply cannot be trusted to exercise your First Amendment rights responsibly–but don’t worry, I’m here to do the thinking for you.

Oh, and because #Science.

I’ve often said that inside every progressive is a little totalitarian struggling to get out, and Barrett really drives the point home here.  First, she frames the issue as if she has come to her conclusions via the scientific method, when in reality her analysis is completely subjective:  “Milo bad/Murray good” is pure opinion, no matter how she tries to present it as objective data.  Second, Barrett takes it upon herself to determine how people should react to controversial speech, even though the threshold of what’s offensive differs based on personal experience.  What gives her the authority to say otherwise?

No, what we have here is more bunk dressed up as science, in service of an agenda that seeks to get people to voluntarily surrender their civil liberties.  It should be dismissed out of hand–but not without a hearty laugh.

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Marc Giller

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