Writing in the New York Times Sunday Review, Professor Lisa Barrett of Northeastern University posed a question this weekend:
"When is speech violence?"
Barrett, who specializes in psychology, tries to answer the question with two key points.
First, "Offensiveness is not bad for your body and brain. ... When you're forced to engage a position you strongly disagree with, you learn something about the other perspective as well as your own. The process feels unpleasant, but it's a good kind of stress — temporary and not harmful to your body — and you reap the longer-term benefits of learning."
No problem there. Stress is something we can internalize and compensate for.
But then Barrett warns against "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." What kind of stress is Barrett talking about?
The professor explains that "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."
Conversely, Barrett says, Charles Murray is worthy of our ears because he offers meaningful debate.
In this juxtaposition of Milo and Murray, Barrett wants us to regard her argument as nuanced and intellectual.
We should not do so.
After all, there's a moral and intellectual rot at play here. While Barrett might deride Yiannopoulos as a "hatemonger" who has no interest in the exchange of ideas, his supporters clearly believe the opposite. Whether defending Donald Trump or challenging college campuses to allow controversial speakers, to them, Yiannopoulos does serve social debate.
And that speaks to the broader issue here.
At its most basic level, Barrett's argument is neither intelligent nor constructive. It is simply hyper-arrogant. The professor believes her viewpoint of stress and speakers should be a guide for all society.
The opposite is true. Indeed, Barrett is exactly why the Constitution grants such latitude to the conduct of free speech. If not, a speaker's appeal or discomfort will be viewed subjectively by each individual. The Constitution represents the truth that the more individual viewpoints exchanged, the more opportunity for worthwhile social discourse.
Barrett concludes with a call to action "we must also halt speech that bullies and torments. From the perspective of our brain cells, the latter is literally a form of violence."
Well, from the prospective of my brain cells, Barrett's argument is a form of violence. Not because it threatens me, but because its arrogant idiocy causes me painful stress.
Yet unlike Barrett, I believe freedom of speech is too important to be subjugated to my misplaced emotions.