A controversial op-ed published in the New York Times earlier this month argued that it was reasonable for universities to ban lectures by speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos on the grounds that certain speech can constitute violence. Author Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, sought to provide substantive weight to a refrain used increasingly by liberal campus activists in their attempts to censor controversial speakers, most of whom happen to be right-of-center.
In that respect, her op-ed was a welcome contribution to the discussion, since these activists rarely appear capable of offering substantive defenses of this contention, which is key to their pleas for censorship.
But if Barrett's argument is the best their side has, and given her credentials I imagine that's the case, they're still in trouble.
In her op-ed, Barrett did concede that "offensiveness is not bad for your body and brain."
"In contrast," she asserted, "long stretches of simmering stress" can be "bad for your nervous system."
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.\
Barrett concluded, "That's why it's reasonable, scientifically speaking, not to allow a provocateur and hate monger like Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at your school." Yiannopoulos, per her assessment, "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," she wrote.
But isn't that a different argument? Is Yiannopoulos objectionable because he's not offering debate or because he creates "long stretches of simmering stress"? And how does one hour of Yiannopoulos' speech on one night of the school year reasonably create such a "long stretch of simmering stress"?
Barrett compares Yiannopoulos to Charles Murray writing, "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."
But where is that line drawn, and who gets to draw it?
There are stark differences between the two men in question, but the same arguments about speech are made to block more scholarly speakers such as Ben Shapiro who don't shy from communicating with a bolder style, but do so with the intention of facilitating a productive conversation. (That, for the record, is why I've argued elevating Yiannopoulos, a non-conservative who is perceived as one, confounds the larger debate about campus censorship.)
Notably, Yiannopoulos claims to have the same intentions of "offering debate" as Murray and Shapiro. Barrett can argue that's insincere or inaccurate, but his allies, and some of his detractors, make reasonable arguments otherwise.
What is the "scientific" explanation as to why his speech is "part of a campaign of abuse"? Many would (wrongfully) argue the exact same is true of Murray's speech. Unless Barrett can supply convincing answers to these questions, proving exactly what words cross the line into psychologically-violent territory, her attempt to draw objective parameters is still just as subjective as the ones one made by protesters of Murray's lectures, with whom she disagrees.
If Barrett could objectively prove how one hour of speech creates "a culture of constant, casual brutality," and why we should trust the arbiters of that definition, her argument would be more persuasive. In the meantime, students should still consider themselves psychologically capable of tolerating hour-long intervals of offensive speech, "noxious" as it may be, and attend a few lectures when they return to school in the fall.
Emily Jashinsky is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.