The worst argument yet that speech can be “violence”: science can tell us which speech should be banned

I swear that the New York Times and the Washington Post are getting closer and closer to HuffPo all the time. Yesterday I saw this article in the WaPo on human sexual dimorphism, which uses Trump’s sexism to cast aspersions on a well-established body of data on sexual selection. It’s an ideological argument masquerading as a scientific one. (I’ve argued before, using that data, that sexual selection produces disparities in body size in humans and many other species).

Now, in today’s New York Times, we have Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett arguing that some kinds of speech really are violent, and should be banned. (Barrett is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University). Click on the screenshot to see the fun:

Barrett’s argument runs like this:

1.) Chronic stress exacts a physiological toll on the body, overworking your immune system, shrinking your telomeres, and the like.

2.) That stress, because it causes physical harm, is a form of violence. To wit:

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 question has taken on some urgency in the past few years, as professed defenders of social justice have clashed with professed defenders of free speech on college campuses. Student advocates have protested vigorously, even violently, against invited speakers whose views they consider not just offensive but harmful — hence the desire to silence, not debate, the speaker. “Trigger warnings” are based on a similar principle: that discussions of certain topics will trigger, or reproduce, past trauma — as opposed to merely challenging or discomfiting the student. The same goes for “microaggressions.”

This idea — that there is often no difference between speech and violence — has stuck many as a coddling or infantilizing of students, as well as a corrosive influence on the freedom of expression necessary for intellectual progress. It’s a safe bet that the Pew survey data released on Monday, which showed that Republicans’ views of colleges and universities have taken a sharp negative turn since 2015, results in part from exasperation with the “speech equals violence” equation.

3.) Some types of speech can be violent and others not, as (says Barrett). Violent speech is that causing physiological (my emphasis in her words below):

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.

Offensiveness is not bad for your body and brain. Your nervous system evolved to withstand periodic bouts of stress, such as fleeing from a tiger, taking a punch or encountering an odious idea in a university lecture.

What’s bad for your nervous system, in contrast, are 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. 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.

4.) I guess you could objectively determine which speech was “violent” by measuring telomere shortening or the titer of proinflammatory cytokines—a measure of stress. That way you’d know which speech to ban, for, make no mistake about it, this article is pretending to use science to find which speech should be banned.

And exactly what kind of speech causes stress and should be verboten? Here is Barrett’s example:

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.

And whose speech is merely offensive?

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.

5.) And to show that Barrett’s essay really is about banning speech, here’s her last paragraph:

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.

This is pure nonsense, and dangerous to boot. Milo appears for an hour or two on college campuses, and yes, the students often get riled up. But they’re subject this his “campaign of abuse” only for that short while—unless they expose themselves to him all the time, and if they do that, they’re causing violence to themselves. As for Murray, has Barrett seen the videos of the Middlebury College students so worked up by Murray’s appearance that they attacked him and his host, injuring that host? What’s the difference here? After all Milo doesn’t just stand on stage and abuse people, he does make arguments, even if I reject many of them—and to some his and Murray’s arguments are equally repugnant. Milo is seen as a transphobe and a misogynist, Murray as a racist.

And look at Evergreen State College. It’s a postmodern college that indoctrinates its students with Authoritarian Leftist dogma, and yet goes out of its way to promote racial equity and mutual respect. Still, many of its students appear to feel that they’re living in an atmosphere of chronic harassment. That much is clear from the way they exploded and rioted when biology professor Bret Weinstein refused to leave campus on the Day of Departure, and by the way they harassed, often in an unhinged manner, Weinstein and College President George Invertebrate Bridges. Gangs of these students later roamed the campus with baseball bats, looking for “fascists” to club. This was not a short-term period of “fight or flight”, but a mental mindset of “fight.” It’s the mindset of Perpetual Offense.

Should Weinstein’s speech be banned? What did it do to the students’ cytokines? We don’t know. The Decider of whether speech is harassment or merely offensive is—you got it—Barrett herself, not a bunch of lab tests. She’s set herself up as a surrogate Lab Test to decide which speech needs to be banned.

And that’s the problem.  Students will always tell you they live in a climate of harassment, whether it be the Patriarchy, white racism, “Islamophobia”, or so on. In the absence of being able to look at their telomeres, we have to make a subjective decision if we’re to use Dr. Barrett’s distinction. And who is to make that decision? As always, that’s the big problem, and that’s why the clear-cut interpretations of the First Amendment are infinitely preferable to Barrettt’s pseudoscience. With a few well-accepted exceptions, don’t ban any speech, although of course you can choose who to invite for talks.

Ten to one you’d find all those rioting snowflakes at Middlebury College, Evergreen State, or Amherst College asserting that they’re not just offended, but harassed.  Without lab tests (and that’s accepting Barrett’s premise, which I don’t), you’ll simply have to ask students whether they’re offended or harassed. Can you guess what the outcome would be, for the Decider and for free speech?

This article is ridiculous, purporting to use science to decide what is Free Speech and what is Bannable Speech. But it comes down to the claim, as it always does with people like Barrett, that the author is to be the Decider.

I don’t buy that. It’s embarrassing to see the Times publishing such tripe. Yes, it’s an opinion, but one that leaks like a sieve, and has the consequence of overturning the First Amendment to the Constitution. (“Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech—unless that speech elevates your cytokines by 30%.”)

And let me add just one more thought. If you consider speech like Milo’s to be “violence” because it causes physical harm to you, then you have an automatic justification for meting out physical violence in return. In other words, you become a Dan Arel who thinks he has the right to punch Nazis—or those, like me and Dave Rubin, whom he sees as white supremacists.

I’m not convinced at all by Barrett’s self-serving argument that there is a scientific distinction between violent and nonviolent speech—a distinction based on whether or not it harms your body. Those offended by speakers will always claim they’re stressed, and may indeed show physiological signs of stress. Well, lots of things are stressful, and if they’re too much for you, just remove yourself from the stress. Don’t go to Milo’s talks or watch him on the Internet. (Workplace harassment, which you can’t escape, is a different matter and is rightfully prohibited.)

I’ve seen a lot of arguments to ban speech, but this pseudoscientific justification is not only risible, but unworkable. Shame on you, New York Times (and, of course, Barrett.)


h/t: BJ


  1. Randy schenck
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Maybe it is also wrong because Barrett is attempting to address a problem from the wrong end. Look at the behavior of the students and then look at speaker or person’s ideas that caused this behavior and focus on that. Instead lets look at that behavior and determine what is going on with these students and their reactions without pointing to the messenger as the problem. Might the problem be with the reaction, not the message.

    • DrBrydon
      Posted July 15, 2017 at 11:17 am | Permalink


      Exactly, Randy.

      If this is a stress reaction, then people should be taught stress management. If people are taught to react viscerally when they hear things they don’t like, then perhaps that is the problem.

      This is just another rationale for trying to control and limit speech that certain people don’t like. Even if Barrett’s conclusions are valid about stress (and I don’t except that any physical reaction equates to violence), it is still the case that only some people react this way to the speech in question, and others have a right to engage with it.

      • jay
        Posted July 16, 2017 at 7:29 am | Permalink

        This is nonsense. The stress issue is already addressed in our legal system.

        Stress can cause issues, but in the case of this kind of speech, NO ONE is forced to listen to it. If you don’t want to hear it, you won’t (other, perhaps, than brief snippets.) People are not forced to attend those lectures (the force would be harassment)

        That’s why lecturing passersby on a bullhorn can be and restricted, but that same speech in a voluntary setting is not.

      • El Cid
        Posted July 19, 2017 at 6:03 am | Permalink

        It’s been said before but parts of the culture, particularly colleges and Universities, are practicing a sort of inverse psychological therapy where they’re being taught to be more frail and more sensitive to perceived slights including “microaggressions.” (Whereas positive therapy helps people to cope with their feelings of paranoia and become desensitized to the to-and-fro of everyday life).

    • Posted July 15, 2017 at 11:56 am | Permalink

      In many cases, it is almost certainly the snowflake students who are working themselves up to have a strong reaction. This happens especially when in a group, in a manner not unlike how evangelicals work themselves into a frenzy of dancing and shouting and speaking in toungues. Like many at an evangelical service, I think many of the students are really just acting to fit in with their group.

      • Randy schenck
        Posted July 15, 2017 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

        I suspect you are right about that – group think is a massive problem with all of this. Or I think some call it herd mentality. Therefore, censorship is not going to correct any of it.

        • Posted July 15, 2017 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

          I have been hoping that mockery from the media would do it. A couple bits on Saturday Night Live and some late night talk shows, and it might soon go the way of the ‘man bun’.

          • Mark R.
            Posted July 15, 2017 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

            There is a trope going around: the man-bun is the Millennial’s mullet. I don’t know if it’s a dig from the right or what. It made me snicker though.

  2. phil brown
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Would it actually be a violation of the first amendment for a university to ban a specific speaker? (Asking from the UK.) Does it make a difference if the university is publicly funded?

    To be fair to Barrett, she’s only saying that it would be reasonable for a university not to allow someone like Milo to speak, not that his speech should be outlawed outright (which is what I understood the first amendment to protect people from).

    I would agree that it’s better for universities to allow academics and student groups a wide latitude to invite who they like. And surely almost anyone going to see Milo talk would know what to expect, and a minute’s googling would suffice for the uninitiated.

    • Posted July 15, 2017 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      No, it’s not. It might be if it were a public university and then there were a disinvitation, or if the university told student groups they couldn’t invite certain speakers.

      But in a public space on campus, a student can say anything he/she wants to.

    • Randy schenck
      Posted July 15, 2017 at 11:16 am | Permalink

      Not a lawyer but would say the answer to your question is no. The first amendment is protection from the government, not a school. But as I mentioned above, going after the person speaking or invitation to speak is not where the problem should be. It is with the student reaction to it that needs considerable help.

      • BJ
        Posted July 15, 2017 at 11:55 am | Permalink

        “The first amendment is protection from the government, not a school.”

        What I’m about to say is simply a response to this, not the initial comment in this thread. This is a misunderstanding when it comes to public colleges. Public colleges must not trample upon Constitutional rights as they are considered government entities.

      • nicky
        Posted July 15, 2017 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

        You are thinking stress management, not unlike anger management? I think that might be a ‘good‘ idea. At least more helpful than ‘safe spaces’, let alone Barrett’s drivel. Helping students to grow up, as it were…

  3. BJ
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    As I said in my email to Jerry when I passed this along, I no longer have the words to express my frustration with this claptrap. I will say one thing regarding the NYT and WashPo becoming more like HuffPo every day: I decided last Saturday to stop my subscription to the NYT. I had been noticing for the last couple of years the increase in weasel words and subtle narrative construction when it comes to certain subjects, but the last straw finally came in an article (not an editorial) on Lena Heady and the upcoming season of Game of Thrones. At one point, the article used the term “mansplaining” as if it was a completely legitimate word. It was just sitting there in a sentence about how sometimes fans explain things about the show to her because they’re so obsessed with it and have their own interpretations. The writer could have said something like that — “She is no stranger to overzealous fans who think they know more about the show than she does.” The author decided to write “She is no stranger to mansplaining.”

    Again, this was not an editorial, just a regular article in the freaking Arts & Leisure section. This part of the article was not specifically about male fans, but the author decided to make it seem like only male fans do such things by choosing the terminology. In fact, half of the article was similar in tone despite this not actually being the subject of the article, when all I wanted to do was read about Game of Thrones and one of its biggest stars (the supposed subject of the article). That was it for me. I’ll get my weekend crosswords online.

    • Posted July 15, 2017 at 11:30 am | Permalink

      Fans often know more about a show than it’s actors. For actors, it’s a job. They are mainly concerned about their own roles. For a diverse cast filming across several continents there’s no reason to believe that every cast member has intimate knowledge about other actors they might never have met or storylines in which they are not involved. Some actors don’t even watch the shows they are in.

      • BJ
        Posted July 15, 2017 at 11:57 am | Permalink

        Oh, absolutely. Go to any fan convention for a popular show and you’ll find out very quickly that this is the case. One of the most hilarious things about such conventions is the Q&A at a show’s panel, where fans will get up and ask detailed questions about largely unnoticed minutiae, and the actors on stage all start looking at each other in bemusement, utterly unaware of anything the fan is talking about.

        • Posted July 15, 2017 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

          It’s kind of a running gag at conventions that, say, LeVar Burton would know how a warp drive works.

          There are actors who were part of fandom with an intimate knowledge of a show (Peter Capaldi, for instance) but expecting an actor to know everything about the economy or geopolitics of a fictional world makes as much sense as showing Hugh Laurie your rash.

          • Posted July 17, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

            I seem to remember when I saw Jonathan Frakes at a con, he said his knowledge of the show as known to fans was even more confusing because he had (a) also been a director on some episodes and (b) they shoot out of sequence, so the “jumble” might not have resolved itself in his head yet.

    • Mark R.
      Posted July 15, 2017 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      GoT…4 hours, 45 minutes and counting. 🙂

      • BJ
        Posted July 15, 2017 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

        Wait, you get it on Saturday?!? Record it and GIVE IT TO ME

        • Mark R.
          Posted July 15, 2017 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

          No…I got my “S” days mixed up. Too anxious mixed with wish-thinking. 🙂

    • Posted July 15, 2017 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

      I noticed these issues with the New York Times too. The increase in partisan slant and unprofessional writing like your example. Also, the tendency to omit stories that don’t fit the ideology they support or when they do report to omit highly relevant details that don’t fit the narrative.

      I switched to Washington Post hoping they would be better and discovered they were even worse. I think the Economist has held up better than most media outlets in terms of quality reporting, but I really don’t know where to get professional objective reporting anymore. I considered trying the Wall Street Journal, but that is tough because I already know I generally don’t like their opinion pieces.

    • Filippo
      Posted July 16, 2017 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      NY Times reporters (with editors’ apparent endorsement) continue to pepper allegedly objective news articles with words like “seems” and “may.” I.e., how something “seems” to a reporter apparently constitutes an objective fact.

      One occasionally reads a reporter describing someone as “unlikely” to have done or accomplished this or that. Or, that something or someone is “odd” or “bizarre.” And I scratch in the margin, “How do you possibly know that?” or, “Thank you for your bloody personal opinion!” Put it in the Editorial or Arts section.

      Have been lately, cathartically, listening to a lot of Gore Vidal fulminating, including about journalism generally where, he says, opinion passes for fact, and about his scourging the NYT in particular over the years whenever he could.

  4. Fernando
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    The age of rational argument is over. The age of dogma has come.

    • Mike
      Posted July 16, 2017 at 7:22 am | Permalink


  5. Posted July 15, 2017 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Follow this through to its logical conclusion, who is subjected to more stress, a liberal student who has no obligation to sit through a two hour speech by a guest, or a conservative student subjected to demonisation, day after day, for years, by faculty and fellow students alike?

    • Alric
      Posted July 15, 2017 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      The difference is that many of the conservative guest, or student ideas are bigoted or simply untrue (climate change is real, evolution is true, etc).. Your example is not symmetrical.

      • Craw
        Posted July 15, 2017 at 11:56 am | Permalink

        Risible. Why do fascists so conspicuously lack self-insight?

      • BJ
        Posted July 15, 2017 at 11:58 am | Permalink

        Ah, there it is! If it’s violence, it’s OK when it’s being done to the right people, and not OK when it’s being done to the people you like. How very convenient!

        I know you’d be back for this one.

        • Craw
          Posted July 15, 2017 at 12:01 pm | Permalink


      • Posted July 15, 2017 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

        No argument there, but inserted into the dissing of those conservative talking points are sometimes explicit or implicit statements that those who were taught to hold those views are dumb. Professors in particular need to be careful about how they frame their lessons in these areas, and sometimes they are not.

        • Alric
          Posted July 15, 2017 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

          A bigger problem is continuing to hold the republican talking points in spite of being shown they are wrong. If you don’t want to be considered dumb you need the ability to change your mind.

          Not that this has been my experience. Proffessors putting down college students are just a straw man by the right and the subject of real bad Christian movies.

          • BJ
            Posted July 15, 2017 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

            You have once again presented yourself as the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong opinions. You must truly be the world’s greatest genius and hold all its knowledge in your head, for otherwise you could not possibly be so sure of everything under the sun.

            • Alric
              Posted July 15, 2017 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

              Humans have figured out some objective truths you know…

              • BJ
                Posted July 15, 2017 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

                The objective truth of “anyone who disagrees with Alric is always wrong”?

                I’m not going down this road with you again. Your pronouncements of ultimate truth held by you and which should decide the rights of all people are absurd and arrogant, and there is no point in arguing with such delusions of grandeur and genius. Goodbye.

              • Posted July 15, 2017 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

                Humans have figured out some objective truths you know…

                And postmodernists are denying the very notion of objective truth.

      • Posted July 15, 2017 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

        My example was of an asymmetry so your reply makes no sense. There is a political imbalance on campus that puts conservatives under more stress than liberals. And since many liberals have embraced Pomo bullshit this asymmetry is not based on who’s ideas are correct.

        • Alric
          Posted July 15, 2017 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

          Calling out conservatives on science denial is not Pomo bullshit.

        • BJ
          Posted July 15, 2017 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

          Did you know that all the articles about PoMo science denialism that have been posted on this site over the years and documented in many other places are actually the practicing of sound science itself? Well, Alric is here to let us know. PoMo isn’t the complete denial of inconvenient truths to be exchanged for the “lived experiences” of the voices we want to be right, nor is it any of the other anti-scientific endeavors under its umbrella; it’s simply the practice of “calling out conservatives on science denial.”

          Well, either that, or Alric has no idea what he/she’s talking about.

          • Posted July 16, 2017 at 2:00 am | Permalink

            Of course. This time, I won’t feed him.

            • BJ
              Posted July 16, 2017 at 7:48 am | Permalink

              It’s kind of irresistible. He’s so arrogant and so sure of his own genius, and yet so utterly incapable of any complex thought or reason. It’s fascinating to watch someone who can only argue in one to three sentences at a time, who completely lacks any nuance, who constantly contradicts himself and then tries to justify each contradiction, who simply ignores arguments he either cannot comprehend or cannot answer, and yet is so deluded as to think he is brilliant and his ideas should run the world. Delusion on such a scale must have evolved as an elaborate defense mechanism against something.

    • Jeremy Tarone
      Posted July 15, 2017 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      The logical conclusion:
      Some parents become stressed when their child comes out of the closet, gays, lesbians, atheists. If the child’s coming out is stressful for the parents, it is violence against them. So nobody can ever come out, lest their coming out inflicts violence on others.

      Getting a divorce causes immense stress on many people, therefore divorce is violence, so people cannot get divorced.

    • nicky
      Posted July 15, 2017 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      Not to mention the stress caused in the speaker due to disinvitation and demonisation.

    • Zach
      Posted July 15, 2017 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      Forget conservative students (not really, but for the sake of argument). I think it could be plausibly argued that political correctness causes far more psychological stress, in the long run, to those who support it, than any bunch of statements transgressing it could. This piece by William Deresiewiczwas was covered here a few months ago, but it’s worth revisiting. In it, he describes the plights of typical students at the kinds of selective liberal arts colleges where this stuff is most rampant:

      I listened to students—–young women, again, who considered themselves strong feminists—–talk about how they were afraid to speak freely among their peers, and how despite its notoriety as a platform for cyberbullying, they were grateful for YikYak, the social media app, because it allowed them to say anonymously what they couldn’t say in their own name. Above all, I heard my students tell me that while they generally identified with the sentiments and norms that travel under the name of political correctness, they thought that it had simply gone too far—–way too far. Everybody felt oppressed, as they put it, by the “PC police”—–everybody, that is, except for those whom everybody else regarded as members of the PC police.

      That last sentence speaks to the dark irony that envelops societies defined by a moral ideology. For even if that ideology is generally positive, and even if most people subscribe to it, the necessary adherence to it ends up poisoning social relations all the same, because one can never be sure if one has adhered to it enough. Operating in an authoritarian milieu, as proponents of speech codes are doing, is what’s really stressful—far more so than “suffer[ing] the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that can befall them outside of it.

  6. Posted July 15, 2017 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    The “Stress Argument” to warrant restraint on Free Speech got to be one of the most preposterous I’ll read this year.

    What these people seem to not get is that nobody is forced to listen to Milo et al speaking. Others can invite speakers they deem fit, and they have a right to expose themselves to as much “stress” they want.

    If they are stressed out by war, death and deportation, they have no place in a history course. If they cannot stomach seeing exposed organs, they shouldn’t study medicine. And if they cannot deal with human emotions, they should avoid literature! By Eris, have these people lost their minds? If some people cannot stand being intellectually challenged, they can go jump in a lake, or flip burgers or something.

    You can make an argument that speech creates a “climate” of sort, and that, say, a climate of sexism (against women) is discouraging women to participate in that course, but then the writers need to make that argument, and make a difference between “subject” (e.g. “racism in the interwar US”) and the climate around it (students making racist comments). Making it always about speakers like Murray or Milo is about hyper-partisan articles of faith, believed and suggested because these ideas are controversal and dumb. If it made any rational sense, you wouldn’t need faith in the Regressive Religion (which, I maintain, is right wing).

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted July 15, 2017 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      The “Stress Argument” to warrant restraint on Free Speech got to be one of the most preposterous I’ll read this year.

      Very true. The article seems to make no distinction between a single utterance of “stressful” speech and the extended and repetitive utterances needed to create long term stress. It seems to me to be more of an argument aimed at suppressing a type of speech, censorship in fact.

  7. Alric
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    I don’t know what the issue is since we have a very good definition of what is hate speech:

    And is used by most other modern democracies to write hate speech laws. Just like guns, and healthcare this is just something we need to evolve.

    • Posted July 15, 2017 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      Well, under that definition almost all hate speech in the US is permitted. In what sense do you mean a “very good definition”?

      • Craw
        Posted July 15, 2017 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

        Alric’s criterion is exactly the same as that proposed by every censor, banner, thought policeman in recorded history: I decide.

        • Alric
          Posted July 15, 2017 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

          And many other Western democracies.

      • Alric
        Posted July 15, 2017 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

        The definition is good. We just don’t have laws that match the definition.

      • BJ
        Posted July 15, 2017 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

        Jerry, you know yI’m noramlly willing to debate people who present opinions like Alric’s, but we’ve already been through this dance with him last month and he proved that all he will do is steadfastly refuse to answer any of the substantive arguments people make against his position, and instead resort to single-sentence strawmen and snark.

        There’s no point in debating someone who has already decided not to argue in good faith.

        • BJ
          Posted July 15, 2017 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

          You know what, I apologize for that comment. It probably skirts the rules. Perhaps he will have a good faith discussion this time. I can’t use past interactions as proof of future interactions.

          I apologize for and retract my statement.

          • Craw
            Posted July 15, 2017 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

            David Hume’s Argument of Commentary? My bet is that your past experiences will prove a reliable predictor of your future ones here.

            • BJ
              Posted July 15, 2017 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

              Well of course, and I was right, but I didn’t want to run afoul of the rules, and I felt that I could possibly be doing so with that comment. Better safe than sorry. I enjoy this site too much!

    • Posted July 15, 2017 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      … we have a very good definition of what is hate speech:

      How does your definition distinguish between “attacking people” or a group of people, and attacking opinions and attitudes that are common among a group of people?

      Presumably you accept that the latter is not “hate speech”?

      • Alric
        Posted July 15, 2017 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

        Can you give me an example of when this is not obvious?

        • Craw
          Posted July 15, 2017 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

          “Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas.” how was that criticism of ideas treated pray tell?

          Or, look at the prosecutions of Dieudonné or Bardot in France.

        • Posted July 15, 2017 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

          An example: “Islam is evil”. Obviously not hate speech, right?

          • Alric
            Posted July 15, 2017 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

            Right. Clearly criticizing a religion not hate speech.

            Arguing that all Muslims are evil is.

            • Posted July 15, 2017 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

              OK then, how about: “Since Islam is evil, and since many Muslims hold to Islamic ideas, we should not allow immigration by Muslims”. Hate speech or not?

              • Alric
                Posted July 15, 2017 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

                Hate speech. You are generalizing to all Muslims based on a few Islamists.

                Do you have any actual hard ones?

              • Posted July 15, 2017 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

                No, The example is about Islam, not Islamism or Islamists, and the majority of Muslims, not just a few, hold to Islamic ideas.

              • Alric
                Posted July 15, 2017 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

                The generalization is the problem.

              • Alric
                Posted July 15, 2017 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

                BTW. Are you under the misconception that this blog or other new atheists would ever advocate for the blatant example of discrimination you provide?

              • Taz
                Posted July 15, 2017 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

                “You are generalizing to all Muslims based on a few Islamists.”

                No he isn’t. The only general statement he made concerns immigration policy – a legal matter. And even that statement doesn’t apply to all Muslims, specifically those who are already citizens. Congratulations – you just criminalized a political opinion.

              • Alric
                Posted July 15, 2017 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

                He specifically said immigration by all Muslims. That’s applying a policy based on religion. Try again.

              • BJ
                Posted July 15, 2017 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

                So, under Alric’s rules of government, you cannot even discuss the possibility of certain policies or ideas, because he would consider them hate speech. Wow, his argument grows stronger with every post.

              • Craw
                Posted July 15, 2017 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

                Of course Alric there are no hard ones. If you disagree it’s illegal; simple! No-one made a statement about all muslims, or even “typical” muslims. He advocated a policy. You would jail him. It’s very easy.

              • Posted July 15, 2017 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

                Sorry, but you can’t punish someone for saying that we should ban all Muslim immigration. Nor should we.

              • Alric
                Posted July 15, 2017 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

                At least the courts agree you couldn’t pass a law like this because it’s discriminatory. So far.

              • Taz
                Posted July 15, 2017 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

                That’s right, Alric. Banning all Muslims would be illegal – talking about it is not. You’re starting to learn.

        • Kiwi Dave
          Posted July 15, 2017 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

          On this quite civilized website I’ve see Trump voters, all 60 million I suppose, dismissed as venal, misognistic, greedy, stupid, deplorable etc.

          Is this hate speech? Should it be banned?

          • Kiwi Dave
            Posted July 15, 2017 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

            I should have said more clearly, ‘…dismissed by various posters…’

          • Alric
            Posted July 15, 2017 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

            No. Unless someone advocates harming them somehow because of this.

            • Craw
              Posted July 15, 2017 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

              You posted a definition of hate speech that included disparaging people on the basis of being in a group. You just did that. You say there are easy bright lines, but cannot see them yourself.

            • BJ
              Posted July 15, 2017 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

              You literally just contravened your own definition of hate speech. You have now officially shown all of us that you don’t care about that definition, you care about punishing speech against groups you like, and allowing speech against groups you don’t like. You have no real definition. It’s about what you like and dislike, and only about that.

              Thank you for doing that.

              • Craw
                Posted July 15, 2017 at 9:38 pm | Permalink


              • Alric
                Posted July 15, 2017 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

                There’s a difference between being called out for being wrong and hate speech.

              • BJ
                Posted July 15, 2017 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

                You can be any wrestler except the Ultimate Warrior. I always get to be the Ultimate Warrior.

          • Alric
            Posted July 15, 2017 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

            Also, the reason Trump voters are called all that is that is the correct explanation for their voting decision. Just like there are Climate Change deniers and creationists.

            • Craw
              Posted July 15, 2017 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

              Creationists are a religious group. Your definition of hate speech includes your comment. Perhaps we should jail you?

              • Alric
                Posted July 15, 2017 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

                It’s not hate to simply point out they are wrong.

            • Kiwi Dave
              Posted July 15, 2017 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

              ‘…the correct explanation for their voting decision…’

              With such certainty, patronising arrogance and ignorance of others’ voting reasons, you will make a splendid judge of forbidden hate speech.

              • Michael Fisher
                Posted July 15, 2017 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

                @the Kiwi


              • Alric
                Posted July 16, 2017 at 2:44 am | Permalink

                This is not subjective. Trump said Climate Change was a hoax by the Chinese, and that women could be grabbed by the pussy.

                They voted for him.

                I’m all ears if you can identify a rational reason to have voted for Trump.

              • Kiwi Dave
                Posted July 16, 2017 at 4:15 am | Permalink

                Trump was a horrible conservative candidate with many defects; unfortunately, his Democrat rival for the presidency also had many defects.

                Not being a USAian, I didn’t have to choose, but I would have rejected Clinton a little more strongly than Trump for reasons you can find in conservative blogs, if you are really interested, while recognizing that people could rationally disagree with my preference.

            • Craw
              Posted July 16, 2017 at 10:42 am | Permalink

              Alric, you called them venal, stupid, and deplorable. You did so when you said those terms were the “correct explanation ” of their votes. That’s not about ideas at all, it’s about people.

  8. Posted July 15, 2017 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Te scientific claim is nonsense. You cannot verify, even in principle, that specific speech acts contribute to future adverse physiological outcomes, or that banning specific speech would improve those outcomes. The alleged harm depends on the total life experience of the individual listener. Even if we conducted a massive (and probably unethical) experiment to find out what speech most harmed a generation of people, it would not necessarily predict the stressors and outcomes for subsequent generations.

  9. Posted July 15, 2017 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  10. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Spot on, as usual, Dr. Coyne. However, I disagree with your characterization of Charles Murray as “racist”. At least based on his interview with Sam Harris, he seems to harbour no animosity to other races and, indeed, points out that the concept of race suffers from the practical impossibility of reliably categorizing individuals into races given the continuous shading and genetically falsified categories that currently exist. I believe he even pointed out that in apartheid South Africa, Japanese people were considered white by government decree. Charles also agreed with Sam that individuals need to be considered on their individual merits and their racial background says nothing about their competence in any area. The only justification for calling Murray racist is from the ctrl-left who do that to anyone (you and Sam included) who dares to question any of their firmly held, evidence free, dogmas.

    • Posted July 15, 2017 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      I didn’t mean to say I thought he was a racist (I haven’t read The Bell Curve or paid him much attention). I was saying why other people demonized him and Milo.

      You completely misunderstood my comment, but I suppose I didn’t make my meaning clear.

      • Ullrich Fischer
        Posted July 15, 2017 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

        Right. Sorry about that. You did seem to be agreeing with the racist slur on Murray.

      • Posted July 15, 2017 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

        I had read it the way Ullrich did too. I went back and reread it and saw what you meant.

      • Colin McLachlan
        Posted July 16, 2017 at 4:33 am | Permalink

        I read it and understood your comment straight away, and then immediately thought, “Someone will misunderstand this or deliberately take it out of context”. It’s the Sam Harris Problem.

  11. Posted July 15, 2017 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Ok, so it’s annoying because the the politics attending the nominally value-free science of psychological-harm-via speech is so predictable (and a non-sequitur; the “speech violence” coming from the greater number of angry students is disproportionate and overwhelming), but it’s also a somewhat interesting point of view that’s also fairly novel. We still generally hold free speech sacred, making anything that challenges it inherently provocative. That’s a big part of why stuff like this is published.

  12. Ken Kukec
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think it’s fair to label Charles Murray a racist. I disagree with Murray on many things, including especially on certain matters regarding race. But I’ve never heard or read anything he’s said or written that is itself racist. And his views on race that I find problematic do not appear to be motivated by racial hatred.

    • Posted July 15, 2017 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

      See above; I wasn’t giving my opinion, but explaining how some students and others characterize Milo and Murray.

      • Posted July 16, 2017 at 5:35 am | Permalink

        Okay; I’ll fix it so it’s clearer.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted July 16, 2017 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

          I posted my comment without refreshing my screen for a bit, so didn’t see your response to Ullrich Fischer above first. Once I did, I understood where you were coming from.

  13. Historian
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    “What’s bad for your nervous system, in contrast, are 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.”

    I found this assertion particularly annoying and absurd. Presumably, Barrett is referring to psychological safety (whatever that may mean) as opposed to physical safety. Just what percentage of students cower in their rooms, twitching with fear, at the thought of a speaker saying something that may hurt them in the head? Even at Evergreen State, I would wager that percentage is very small, such as at 1% or 2%, despite the possibility that a larger percentage would profess fears for their safety. Those students who actually do live in psychological fear should seek counseling. They are not prepared to function in a college environment where the free exchange of ideas, even odious one, stand as one of the foundations of a higher education.

    This so-called “safety” issue that is sweeping many campuses strikes me as an example of mass hysteria. This meme probably started on one campus, was picked up by social media, and before you knew it, outbreaks of fear were everywhere, abetted by people like Barrett. The Salem witch trials were an early example of an hysteria meme run amok. That outbreak was limited to a small area. Even outbreaks of religious hysteria over larger areas took time to spread. But these examples of hysteria had limited life spans, although religious hysteria still remained beneath the surface, kept alive by the clergy. However, I am confident that the safety meme will burn itself out within the next couple of years as a new generation of students enter college and find something else to get worked up about, hopefully an issue more based in reality than the meme of the scared student whose life is made a living hell because Milo says something stupid.

  14. Michael Fisher
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    Nobody expects the TEMPLETON AWARDS!


    “Informal Science Education via Storytelling: Teaching Scientists and Philosophers How to Communicate with the Public”

    David DeSteno & Lisa Feldman-Barrett

    Northeastern University

  15. Posted July 15, 2017 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    So some speech causes stress?Then so do lots of written statements. Linda Sarsour’s statements get me really stressed. I also get stressed by Donald Trump. And I get REALLY stressed when I get a letter from the IRS saying I owe them money. Sitting near crying babies on an airplane gets me REALLY mad. Getting my teeth examined while waiting for the dentist to say I need three root canals makes my heart race. Getting a medical diagnosis of an illness sends me over the edge. And the price of a large latte makes me reach for my gun. Not knowing the difference between capicolla and mortadella creates a pit in my stomach. Reading David Brooks gives me a cold sweat and headache. I can’t escape the conclusion that Life Causes Stress. So maybe the answer is to kill everyone who causes you stress. That’s known as Islamic jihad by the way. People who find attacks on religion or reading dead white male authors stressful will be welcome in ISIS and they will feel vindicated in their neurosis and welcomed in a community of like-minded crazies.

    • nicky
      Posted July 15, 2017 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      Sorry Lorna, I see you beat me to it.

    • Posted July 15, 2017 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for good examples of life stressors. Living in itself causes extreme stress in numerous situations for all people if they have useful brains. Going to university causes such stress. Taking tests. Being called on in class to answer a question you don’t know the answer to. Going to work. Driving in heavy traffic. Dealing with a**holes. Trying not to respond to
      ignorant or stupid statements by presumably ignorant or stupid people. On and on. Stress terminates with death. Until then, there will always be more or less stress in every life and we must learn to live with it. As the Eagles said: “Get over it!”

  16. Ken Kukec
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    The good professor’s point would be valid only if Milo and his ilk were being permitted to harangue students ceaselessly in their dorm rooms.

    The First Amendment’s “captive audience” doctrine already prohibits that.

  17. nicky
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure, but I cannot escape the hunch that the smooching up of the ‘left’ with Islam plays a non-negligible role in this. “Taking offense” is (at least in the present era) a most typically Islamic thing to do. And I do not just mean Rushdie or cartoons, heck, in many Islamic countries giving offense is punishable by death.
    Combine that with the trope of ‘oppressed minority’ and you inevitably get the present situation of victimhood, ‘unsafety’, being-offended-as-a-great-injustice, etc. etc.

  18. Posted July 15, 2017 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Rather than ban speech that causes stress, why not teach students the basic principles of cognitive behavioral therapy or meditation? It would reduce stress without reducing freedom.

    • Craw
      Posted July 15, 2017 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

      Or ban students? Think of the stresses averted.

  19. Jay Baldwin
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Does reason stand a chance when pseudo-reason feels so good?

  20. Kevin
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    There is no Turing Test for hate speech, because everyone has a different perspective for what is offensive.

    Defining hate speech is like defining metaphysical boundaries inside a metaphysical realm.

  21. Posted July 15, 2017 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    I find these sorts of arguments by Barrett like a species acquiring a niche, except this is actually ‘looking’ for somewhere to place/ niche and survive…
    What Barrett ‘thinks’ is a good idea and even slightly science friendly munches on already established and known science. But,
    hopefully, it will die off as quick as it came because it doesn’t have anything to sustain itself and evolve into a useful idea.

  22. Jimbo
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

    By this light, movie theater popcorn is violent. It’s like taking a punch to the liver from Mike Tyson. And shortened telomeres and increased cortisol and oxidative stress and TNF-alpha and loss of tumor suppressors and such.

  23. Katiness Everdeen
    Posted July 16, 2017 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Developing critical thinking and conflict resolution skills will aid in reducing stress. The clobber with a bat first and ask questions later mob is not a plus in a learning environment.

  24. Posted July 17, 2017 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    So what happens if I claim (perhaps correctly – I do get angry about it sometimes) people who want to restrict free speech stress me out?

  25. Gary
    Posted July 18, 2017 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    So many obvious flaws in the idea.
    Most importantly, you can choose not to listen to speech you dislike. It’s very rarely mandatory. Just don’t go and listen to Milo if you don’t like what he says.

    Secondly, you can easily condition people to feel under attack by certain ideas. Especially if you condition people from birth as religions tend to. She’s essentially offering an incentive to indoctrinate children with ideas so we can claim they’re part of their identity and therefore damaging.

    You could essentially defend Nazism by saying it’s part of someone’s identity. The sky’s the limit. Utter madness. And very worrying how often the NYT has published stuff like this.

  26. Nilou Ataie
    Posted July 18, 2017 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    It is negatively moral to call someone ugly or say that their beliefs are rubbish. But morality is on a scale, from very immoral to very moral, and violence lies WAY more over to the negative morality side than does speech offense. If we had an asshole neighbor who called everyone ugly, we would not like the guy. But if a band of people got together and blew his head off and then they announced that those that call others ugly would suffer the same fate – then does not disuse of the word become immoral? Do we cower and mask our fear with indignation that ugly is truly an ugly word perhaps worth dying for? Or, do we say the word, study it, analyze its effects? Let’s do the molecular calculus. Offense is equal to some stress hormones and damage. Violence is equivalent to that plus any tissue or cellular damage caused by the mechanics. And death is equal to all of that plus the zero probability of repair – ever *****very very very bad. Also, saying that free speech should be banned (being the victim) is itself offensive speech to possibly billions? of those who want free speech (perpetrator), so that stress hormones are in both victim and perpetrator so all are victims

  27. Posted July 19, 2017 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    What’s valuable in an article like this is the foreshadowing of the kinds of arguments that will be used to rollback free speech once certain types gain the power to do so.

%d bloggers like this: