From The New York Times:
By Lisa Feldman Barrett | July 14, 2017
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?
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.”
This is a pretty poor example, because the speech made constitutes a credible threat to do physical harm; that’s already a crime. It is not the words which are actionable, but the threat. What would make more sense is an example in which the speech was, “I hate your guts, and hope someone punches you out,” which is certainly hostile, but isn’t making an actual threat.
But the author, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, continues, telling us that hostile speech can have a harmful physical impact:
But scientifically 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.
There’s more at the original. Dr Barrett tries to take the distinction between speech which is abusive as opposed to obnoxious, holding that abusive speech is physically harmful:
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.
However, the good professor stated that an obnoxious position, using Dr Charles Murray’s contention that genetics accounts for at least some of the disparity between IQ test scores between the races as an example, can and should be debated.
Dr Barrett concluded:
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.
Yet, to use her own example, how many people would contend that Dr Murray’s position is abusive as well as obnoxious? After all, couldn’t some black members of his audience take the position that he is not just making a scientific debating point, but calling them, individually, stupid? Couldn’t some people hold that his position actively harms blacks, because it might influence someone else to discriminate against blacks, holding blacks to be inferior candidates for whatever position is under consideration?
In effect, Dr Barrett is taking the position that mean words are the equivalent of physical violence, of ‘breaking your bones’ as it were. She may have taken a distinction between obnoxious and abusive, but others would take such distinctions differently, and her statement that “we must also halt speech that bullies and torments” is a call for the imposition of the police power of the state to do such, though she never states that explicitly. How else, I have to ask, do we ‘halt speech?’
Dr Barrett was defending not allowing Mr Yiannopoulos to speak on “your” campus, but what does that mean? Does it mean bullying a group which chooses to invite him into withdrawing the invitation, or does it mean the use of physical force to prevent such if the invitation is not withdrawn? And in her comparison of hostile speech — though she used a terrible example — as causing physical harm, isn’t she opening the door to criminalizing some cretin calling a coed fat in the same way a physical assault is illegal?