Why speech isn’t violence

Four days ago I wrote a critique of psychologist Lisa Barrett’s argument that speech can be violence, an argument made in her New York Times piece “When is speech violence?” Barrett’s answer was that speech becomes violence when it causes sufficient stress over time that the body is damaged. She then proposed banning speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos because they supposedly have that effect. Among the counterarguments is that a talk by Milo is a one-time “offense”, not a persistent stress, that people can choose to avoid it, and if you’re that stressed out by Milo, you should just stop watching his videos or talks.

Further, lots of people stress themselves out when they could be learning to stay away from stressors that are avoidable (workplace harassment, of course, should be illegal, as it is along with threats), that many perfectly defensible words (like critiques of Islam) are described by people as “stressful”, and therefore could be banned under Barrett’s rules, and, finally, that if you construe speech as violence, then that gives you a justification of responding with physical violence, something that’s actually happened at Berkeley and Middlebury College.

Well, yesterday Jon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff  (henceforth “H&L”) address Barrett’s argument in The Atlantic in an essay called “Why it’s a bad idea to tell students words are violence,” and they make many of these same points. (I really should try to write, at least sometimes, for sites that pay!) But to be fair, their piece is far better than my throwaway post, with Haidt, a social psychologist, and Lukianoff, head of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), having deep knowledge of campus troubles and the psychology behind them.  Do read their piece.

H&L see two valid claims in Barrett’s argument and two inferences, drawn from those claims, that are invalid. The first valid one is that stress causes physical damage—something that’s long been known. The incorrect inference is that stressful speech is “violence”. (The correct inference would have been that stressful speech causes physical harm.) But then H&L go on to suggest that stressful speech also is largely avoidable, and you can train yourself to avoid being stressed out (they’ve suggested that incoming students be trained in cognitive behavior therapy, a good idea). They also argue forcefully that college students must and should learn how to not only listen to speech they find offensive, but learn how to counter it. I agree again.

The second valid point that H&L find in Barrett’s argument is that students “can grow from facing and overcoming adversity.” True. The invalid inference is one I made above: people like Milo, Charles Murray, or Christina Somers are not causes of chronic, body-damaging stress—unless you let them become that.

But then H&L go further than I in discussing the evidence that campus “safety” provisions like trigger warnings don’t work, and that the mental health crisis among campus students is growing, not diminishing. Students born after 1994, they say, show a rising spike in mental disorders. H&L say the Internet may be responsible for that, but don’t go deeply into the causes, which aren’t known anyway. They do argue that the “speech is violence” idea, and similar tropes, just make it worse:

We think the mental-health crisis on campus is better understood as a crisis of resilience. Since 2012, when members of iGen first began entering college, growing numbers of college students have become less able to cope with the challenges of campus life, including offensive ideas, insensitive professors, and rude or even racist and sexist peers. Previous generations of college students learned to live with such challenges in preparation for success in the far more offense-filled world beyond the college gates. As Van Jones put it in response to a question by David Axelrod about how progressive students should react to ideologically offensive speakers on campus:

“I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that’s the whole point of the gym. This is the gym.”

This is why the idea that speech is violence is so dangerous. It tells the members of a generation already beset by anxiety and depression that the world is a far more violent and threatening place than it really is. It tells them that words, ideas, and speakers can literally kill them. Even worse: At a time of rapidly rising political polarization in America, it helps a small subset of that generation justify political violence. A few days after the riot that shut down Yiannopoulos’s talk at Berkeley, in which many people were punched, beaten, and pepper sprayed by masked protesters, the main campus newspaper ran five op-ed essays by students and recent alumni under the series title “Violence as self defense.” One excerpt: “Asking people to maintain peaceful dialogue with those who legitimately do not think their lives matter is a violent act.”

H&L wind up arguing that allowing what the courts construe as “free speech” is especially important on college campuses, which are crucibles for testing ideas, constituting a sort of scientific, Enlightenment-based experiment based on the premise that only unregulated speech can truly create a progressive society. No suppression of free speech, I think, has ever improved a nation.

Near the end of their piece, H&L quote from a 2010 decision of a U.S. Court of Appeals, in which judge Alex Kozinski noted the special urgency of maintaining free speech on campuses:

The right to provoke, offend, and shock lies at the core of the First Amendment. This is particularly so on college campuses. Intellectual advancement has traditionally progressed through discord and dissent, as a diversity of views ensures that ideas survive because they are correct, not because they are popular. Colleges and universities—sheltered from the currents of popular opinion by tradition, geography, tenure and monetary endowments—have historically fostered that exchange. But that role in our society will not survive if certain points of view may be declared beyond the pale.

The University of Chicago’s administration and faculty—though not all of its students—support that view. Everyone on a college campus should agree, unless you have the kind of authoritarian campus like Bob Jones University, where dissent is suppressed for the good of Christian doctrine.


  1. BJ
    Posted July 19, 2017 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    “The first valid one is that stress causes physical damage—something that’s long been known. The incorrect inference is that stressful speech is “violence”. (The correct inference would have been that stressful speech causes physical harm.)”

    I just want to address the parenthetical here. It is, of course, the correct inference, but we know that people like Barrett don’t want to ban all speech that causes stress, but only speech that causes stress for far left activists and other groups they like. They are perfectly fine with — nay, happy to engage in and promote — speech that may cause stress for people they don’t like or support, and we can thus deduce that people like Barrett don’t really care about others who may be caused stress by speech, but rather think this argument is a tool to suppress only speech they don’t want spoken.

    It is, as always with these people, an example of their continuing faith that, should their authoritarian rules be implemented, they will only ever apply to others and never be used against themselves.

    • Carey Haug
      Posted July 19, 2017 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

      I agree. The big question is who gets to decide who are the victims of the allegedly violent speech. Is it restricted to people who are in minority groups with regard to racial, religious, sexual orientation,disability status etc.?

      The whole concept of violent speech is illogical, but then the whole PoMo philosophy is illogical. Its followers often reject logic and reason.

    • eric
      Posted July 19, 2017 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

      This is a great point. They ideology is wagging the science, rather than the other way around.

    • Posted July 20, 2017 at 8:02 am | Permalink

      Add this to the toolbox of concepts that the regressive left uses in a very selective fashion. They are as follows:

      -The importance of diversity (only a concern when there is a white and/or male hegemony in a group).

      -Social constructionism (only wheeled out to explain differences that favor males and/or whites and asians).

      -Sexual double standards (only a problem when they seem to benefit men).

      -Free speech (only allowed for the regressive left).

      -Violence (it’s okay when we do it).

      Any others?

  2. Posted July 19, 2017 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Speech is violent when you are actually enciting violence with your words. Is that simple.
    Speech is not violent if you disagree with the words or those words hurt your feelings, nobody cares about your feelings or mine.

    • GBJames
      Posted July 19, 2017 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      Basically, that is conspiracy to commit a violent crime.

      • Posted July 19, 2017 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

        What is? hurting somones feelings? If that is the case then the person who thinks so I would go as far and say that they are fascist since nobody can express they’re personal opinions because someone is going to get their feelings hurt. That is kind of childish.

        • GBJames
          Posted July 19, 2017 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

          No, not hurt feelings. What you said in your first sentence about “actually enacting violence”.

          • Posted July 19, 2017 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

            I think we are missunderstanding ourself’s, or I’m missunderstanding better said. Lets leave it that the post was very interesting, I do say that truthfully.

            • GBJames
              Posted July 19, 2017 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

              I thought I was agreeing with you. I still think I am. Your results may vary. 😉

              • GBJames
                Posted July 19, 2017 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

                (Which is to say that the kind of crime involved with a certain kind of speech that invokes violence is a form of conspiracy which is against the law already.)

              • Posted July 19, 2017 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

                I agree to agree with you

              • Ken Kukec
                Posted July 19, 2017 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

                Wait, what’s the name of the guy on second base?

    • Kevin
      Posted July 19, 2017 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      There are no propositions that can be formed or uttered that incite violence.

      Speech is never violent. Unless it is amplified above >98 dB in which case the longitudinal pressure waves of compressed and rarified air molecules can do physical damage to other people.

      • Harrison
        Posted July 19, 2017 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

        Direct incitement to violence actually is one of the few and narrowly defined exceptions to universal free speech.

        The point that should be made however is that if you want to censor speech, you need to demonstrate how that speech already falls outside the bounds of legal protection, not try to shrink or gerrymander those bounds.

        • Kevin
          Posted July 19, 2017 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

          Hay, there’s the rub. I can think of no speech that would incite violence (for me).

          I used to work in a co-op and there were cooks and cleaners and one time the cooks of the dinner crew said the cleaners of the lunch crew ‘hate their mothers’ because they did such a poor job cleaning the previous lunch.

          Is this is a declarative statement or an imperative one? Do they hate their mothers or should they hate their mothers? Do they all hate their mothers? Have they hated their mothers for all time or just recently? And if they are to hate their mothers, how? Should it be private scorn and ignoring or a small spit in the face or a brutal kick to the crotch?

          If there is anything violent about speech it’s that it is so often a vague Gestalt.

          • Harrison
            Posted July 19, 2017 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

            While this might be a fun semantic game, it really doesn’t have any bearing on the legality of certain types of speech. And I don’t expect anyone to try it out in court anytime soon.

            We’ve got enough trouble dealing with Pomoheads without joining them in wishy washy fuzzy thought land.

          • Bruce Gorton
            Posted July 20, 2017 at 1:00 am | Permalink

            Direct incitement to violence is basically telling people to do violence.

            For example if a union leader tells striking workers to burn down a factory, that is incitement to violence.

            Saying stuff that pretty much amounts to that would also count because semantic game-playing is a thing, but the meaning has to be pretty clear in order to make the case.

            Simply calling the boss an asshole and the factory a shit-hole would not class as incitement.

          • Posted July 20, 2017 at 7:12 am | Permalink

            Hay, there’s the rub. I can think of no speech that would incite violence (for me).

            I’m glad, but arguing from the specific to the general is a fallacy. Speech can and does incite people to commit violence. Do you think the 9/11 hijackers just had the idea pop into their heads?

            • BJ
              Posted July 21, 2017 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

              But you must intend to or know that your speech will immediately incite. A good example would be trying to start a pogrom and saying, “now lets go grab our guns and torches, march into town, and shoot every Jew we find and burn down their homes!”

      • Posted July 19, 2017 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

        got ya

      • Posted July 20, 2017 at 7:05 am | Permalink

        There are no propositions that can be formed or uttered that incite violence.

        “God hates Americans. Hijack some airliners and fly them into the World Trade Centre.”

        “Gays are against God’s will. Throw them off tall buildings.”

        “Jews are inferior, we need to exterminate them.”

        All propositions that have been formed or uttered that have incited real people to do real violence.

        • GBJames
          Posted July 20, 2017 at 7:30 am | Permalink

          You just uttered those propositions. Were you inciting violence, Jeremy?

          I think the critical matter is not what the words are, it is the context of their use. If those were uttered as part of a conspiracy to commit an violent crime then it is the conspiracy that is to be punished. It is not the speech/wording itself.

          • Posted July 20, 2017 at 9:21 am | Permalink

            I may have replied to the wrong post.

            My comment was meant to refute Kevin’s assertion that no propositions can be formed or uttered that incite violence. All three of my examples were uttered and did incite violence.

            Whether you call the crime conspiracy or not is up to you although I probably wouldn’t call the Nazi proclamations about Jews a conspiracy even though some Germans were incited to commit violence.

            • GBJames
              Posted July 20, 2017 at 9:32 am | Permalink

              But you uttered the words and you were not inciting violence any more than Christopher Hitchens was when he shouted “fire” in a crowded room. It isn’t the words uttered, it is the context of the words uttered that is critical.

              • Posted July 21, 2017 at 6:27 am | Permalink

                Did anybody say utterances of these words always incite violence? The assertion was made that such utterances never incite violence. I only need to provide one counter example to prove it false.

              • BJ
                Posted July 21, 2017 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

                You’re leaving out the fact that, through your speech, you need to intend or have reasonable knowledge that you speech will incite *immediate* violence.

            • Kevin
              Posted July 20, 2017 at 9:38 am | Permalink

              “God hates fags”. Physical harm done to society solely because of this statement.

              Tabasco industry misleading advertisement. Probably millions with lifelong morbidity and premature mortality.

              Timothy McVeigh used to hand out hundreds, if not thousands of pamphlets asking people to join his cause. In the end, his speech garnered a whole of two co-conspirators.

              Hate speech can reach many; it affects very few.

              • Posted July 21, 2017 at 6:31 am | Permalink

                Is there a problem with Tobasco now? I quite like it to add a bit of a kick to my food.

  3. Randy schenck
    Posted July 19, 2017 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    So H&L are the grownups in the room for all the campus crazies. The question is, will it have affect on them or are they so far gone nothing will bring them back to reality. Let’s hope that it will help, of course they would have to allow H&L on the campuses to speak to this matter. It would not hurt to add another item of habit to this discussion and that is this business of the kids living at home with mom and dad until they are pushing 40. Does this not set them up for failure or at minimum a habit of living off of others.

    • BJ
      Posted July 19, 2017 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      Frankly, I imagine that anyone like H&L espousing free speech and viewpoint diversity is at this point considered alt-right white supremacist supporters of the cis-hetero-patriarchy by both the far left students and the many faculty members who support them, and they will be treated as such (attempts to censor, disrupt, demonize, and shut down them and their talks).

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted July 19, 2017 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

        The gentleman doth exaggerate, methinks. 🙂

        • BJ
          Posted July 19, 2017 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

          Really? At this point, we’ve seen multiple feminists — even influential ones that shaped the movement from the second wave on — be shouted down and driven out of their talks or deplatformed before even being able to try speaking, simply for not being feminist *enough* (referring to Grier and Butler here).

  4. Ken Kukec
    Posted July 19, 2017 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Buddy of mine clerked for Judge Kozinski. He (AK) is quite conservative, but he’s got a libertarian bent, and a ribald sense of humor. And he’s sharp as a freshly stropped razor. Good writer, too. Kozinski used to be on the short list for SCOTUS, but he’s aged out of consideration now. We could’ve (and have) done worse.

  5. DrBrydon
    Posted July 19, 2017 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    I’ve bookmarked the Atlantic piece, but haven’t had time to read it (tonight). I think the thing to understand is that society, or a nation, needs some general level of tolerance to survive, and not devolve in anarchy or dictatorship. Defining speech as violence would only create real violence, either on the part of the offenders as resisters or the government as enforcer. The Ctrl-Left has no understanding of the value of civil peace, and no appreciation for what civil war would really mean.

    • BJ
      Posted July 19, 2017 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

      “Defining speech as violence would only create real violence, either on the part of the offenders as resisters or the government as enforcer.”

      Or on the part of those that think the speech is violence, which is already happening. See the roving mob at Evergreen, antifa, and other far left groups that have become violent at talks on campuses and protests when challenged.

  6. Kevin
    Posted July 19, 2017 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Violent speech? Let me rephrase that:

    “Colorless green violence speaks furiously.”

    That’s better. I am sure Ozzy and Judas Priest will approve when I say: if words make you distressed, you have other problems.

  7. Posted July 19, 2017 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    How about what I now dub the “Surgeon Argument” to Free Speech, that is: “if you cannot see blood, don’t become a surgeon.” Preferably, stay away from hospitals altogether. Or as Paul Merton once remarked, go to an snack stall also when you feel very ill, for few people die at snack stalls, compared to hospitals.

    If you are intolerably stressed out by arguments and ideas, stay away from university, and don’t attempt to become a surgeon of ideas (an academic or scholar, who is supposed to dissect ideas).

    It is really silly to expect an intellectual “safe space” on — of all places — a campus. It’s about as expecting to perform a surgery without spilling blood.

  8. Posted July 19, 2017 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    People who argue that speech constitute violence give me a headache.

    By their own logic, can I sue them for my headache?

  9. eric
    Posted July 19, 2017 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    The first valid one is that stress causes physical damage—something that’s long been known.

    IIRC from reading Elizabeth Loftus, false perceptions of trauma cause exactly the same brain effects as actual trauma. The guy who has PTSD from being ‘abducted by aliens’ is physiologically in the same boat as the soldier who has PTSD from battle (no matter how offensive or unjust that may to to the soldier).

    This observation is important to the debate for two reasons. First, it means Barrett’s idea is simply unworkable. You can’t define a type of speech as harmful due to physiological impact and ban it because any speech, no matter what the content, could have a harmful physiological effect – depending on what the recipient perceives. “Good day, sir” can hypothetically traumatize someone as much as “I’m going to rape you now.” What matters for psychological trauma is the connotation the recipient perceives, not the denotation the speaker intended…and nobody can control the connotation another person reads into their speech.

    The second reason it’s important is because it means the “put your boots on and explore the jungle” strategy on its own, is probably not a viable solution. You can’t shrug off a physiologically real trauma merely because most people think the circumstances didn’t warrant you suffering it in the first place. You did suffer it. It’s real. We should be empathetic and cognizant of that. I think a good comparison is with a phobia. People have phobias of pretty crazy and stupid things. But the fear is real. We don’t rudely tell them to ‘get the frak over it’ and dismiss it – we help them learn to deal with it. Well, it appears some alt-lefties have developed a phobia of foreign/opposed speech and ideas. The object of their phobia is – to most of us – even more absurd than triskadekaphobia or agoraphobia or any other weird phobia. But it’s still a phobia or something similar to that – an aversion that causes an actual psychological impact on them when confronted with the object of their aversion. So we should treat it as such. Not “get the frak over it” and dismissal, but “we’ll help you to deal with it, so that your aversion doesn’t cause you a crippling social problem.”

    • Posted July 20, 2017 at 12:01 am | Permalink

      The difference is that people don’t band together to actively encourage their own arachnophobia the way they do with ‘white supremacy’.

      Campus administrators don’t deliberately foster a fear of spiders to expand their own empires.

      News media do not uncritically circulate myths about one in four students being eaten by tarantulas.

      Arachnophobia is irrational but arachnophobia are in no way responsible for that arachnophobia the way students are actively responsible for fostering their own fears.

  10. peepuk
    Posted July 20, 2017 at 3:27 am | Permalink

    People overlook often the fact that stress can also be beneficial and healthy.

    Further, when tabooing stress we also loose tolerance. Intolerance leads to real violence.

    • Kevin
      Posted July 20, 2017 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      Well said. I want every hater to speak on the highest mountain. There are two advantages to this, among many others:

      1. You learn who the hater is. This is immensely useful, particularly if you wish to lower your cross-section with their vitriol.

      2. You get access to information you may not agree with or you might actually find there could be useful information.

      Am I to gaze no more on Picasso’s painting because he might have been a misogynist? Or listen to Wagner’s operas because he was anti-semitic? They had strong messages that can be misguiding but that does not make the messages violent.

  11. Diane G.
    Posted July 21, 2017 at 3:13 am | Permalink


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