The New York Times recently published an op-ed arguing that words can have detrimental physical effects on people.
The op-ed — written by Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University — asks “When Is Speech Violence?” Barrett argues that negative words and thoughts, merely by being said, can be counted as an act of physical violence due to the reaction that they may cause within an individual.
“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?” she asks. “The answer might seem obvious: Physical violence is physically damaging; verbal statements aren’t. ‘Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.'”
“But scientifically speaking, it’s not that simple,” Barrett claims. “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.”
The article further goes on to claim, “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?” This would seem to allow any negative comments or comments that may be considered inflammatory to be classified as “violence.”
The author does, however, contend that some forms of stress relating to ideas that one may find repugnant can be a healthy growing experience, citing a debate exercise where she asked students to argue for and against eugenics, a task that the students steadfastly refused to take part in. The author contends, “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.”
However, it seems that engaging with ideas you may disagree with only falls into a certain category of “acceptable wrong-think,” as a few short paragraphs later Barrett writes, “a culture of constant, casual brutality is toxic to the body, and we suffer for it. 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,” Barrett charges. “There is nothing to be gained from debating him, for debate is not what he is offering.” Despite the fact that former Breitbart Senior Editor MILO has taken part in numerous debates and appeared on many panels to discuss his ideas, Barrett believes that when it comes to MILO, “debate is not what he is offering.”
The article finished by once again stating that harsh words are “literally violence” and should be avoided. “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.”
Naturally it didn’t take Twitter users long to begin ridiculing the New York Times:
This is a new low in neuroshit. "My politics, because…proteins! And telomeres! Bad things, science!" https://t.co/LgTQ4MS0Ws
— St. Rev ☯️🏴😻 (@St_Rev) July 15, 2017
— Jeff Charles (@Jeff_Charles) July 16, 2017
— gregory alan elliott (@greg_a_elliott) July 15, 2017
"When Is Speech Violence" It's never violence you fools, stop trying to censor freedom of speech. Stop trying to quell differing opinions.
— Irma Hinojosa (@irmahinojosa_) July 15, 2017
— Linda Suhler, Ph.D. (@LindaSuhler) July 16, 2017