Why Speech Is Not Violence

Psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett has written an article for the New York Times entitled “When Speech Is Violence.” It begins:

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?

Barrett’s goal is to use findings in biology and medicine about the effects, supposedly tantamount to violence, of certain kind of language on the body to “provide empirical guidance for which kinds of controversial speech should and shouldn’t be acceptable on campus and in civil society.” Her conclusion is that “abusive” language should be unacceptable, while merely “offensive” language should be accepted and refuted rather than being somehow proscribed. Bracketing for the moment that there are no clear ways of differentiating between the two (and that the social justice movement in fact refuses such a distinction outright, which I will discuss below), her argument rests on the idea that abusive speech causes bodily harm by setting in motion stress reactions in the body:

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.

Your body also contains little packets of genetic material that sit on the ends of your chromosomes. They’re called telomeres. Each time your cells divide, their telomeres get a little shorter, and when they become too short, you die. This is normal aging. But guess what else shrinks your telomeres? Chronic stress.

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.

The chain of reasoning here is as follows: stress shortens life; certain forms of speech cause stress and so shorten life; therefore certain forms of speech should be impermissible in the university and civil society; abusive speech, such as identity-based hate speech, is such impermissible language.

You may notice two problems with this.

First, Barrett has smuggled into her thesis the unstated and unargued assumption that one mission of the university is the protection of students from medically-defined stressors. This theory has far-reaching implications I will discuss below, but suffice to say for now that any project of social formation, which university education is, will involve numerous stressors that are not extricable from the process of strengthening individuals by testing them.

Second, in an atmosphere where there is no common understanding of what constitutes hate speech, abusive speech, or offensive speech, Barrett has left the definition of a crucial term far too open—in practice, it will be seized upon by political actors of all sorts to claim that the speech they object to is an abusive life-shortening stressor and so in need of curtailment. This is not a negligible point. It is no longer 2014: Obama’s DOE is not the one making monitory recommendations to college and university administrators, and the cultural right in all its varieties has grown expert in repurposing leftish rhetoric against its devisers. Barrett shows an awareness of this problem when she tries to differentiate between “a campaign of abuse” (typified by Milo Yiannopoulos, whose speech should be proscribed as “a danger to a civil society (and to our health)”) and mistaken, offensive arguments couched in academic rhetoric (typified by Charles Murray, whose speech should be entertained and then refuted, and which entertainment and refutation is “the lifeblood of democracy”), but even here there are problems.

For one thing, Barrett must be very inexperienced in the realm of social justice activism if she thinks that its partisans will be willing to make this distinction. For them, an academic article or an online art installation are as capable of “literal violence” as explicitly abusive or insulting rhetoric, as the cases of Rebecca Tuvel and Vanessa Place, to name only two, should prove. And why not?—aren’t overt epithets lobbed by a flamboyant insult-artist actually much easier to brush off than the deeper and longer-lasting stress of a respectable and respected argument against one’s deepest convictions? If some speech is more stressful than a punch in the face, then perhaps the verbal equivalent of a punch in the face is less stressful than the slow erosion over time of one’s self-definition. So, using her own assumptions, I have reversed her argument with implications for her own academic identity and methodology, which she took great care to protect from social justice activism in the guise of supporting its cause. That is what the dreaded “SJW” will do with the ammunition she provides.

(Never mind that the application of Barrett’s anti-stress ideal to the arts is nightmarish to contemplate. What will the theater departments of the world do once we have defended our quaking telomeres against King Lear or—forget dead white men—feminist drama like Blasted, black drama like Joe Turner’s Come and Gone?)

At this late hour—after a spate of disciplinary actions or investigations against academics for their liberal or left “abusive speech,” some of which really is abusive by Barrett’s broad definition (e.g., Steven Salaita, George Ciccariello-Maher, Johnny Eric Williams, Tommy Curry, Dana Cloud, Lisa Durden)—Barrett should also be aware by now what the political right will do with her ideas. The right may claim that for Christian students to read the incendiary rhetoric of Nietzsche or perhaps even the calmly-stated claims of Darwin is an intolerable, insulting stressor that they should be protected from; the right may claim likewise that Jewish students should not subjected to the stressful speech of anti-Zionists, an abusive insult to their suffering European ancestors and their threatened Middle Eastern co-religionists; the right may repurpose feminist rhetoric, as they have been doing for a very long time, to object that certain “obscene” artworks are too stressful for students to endure; the right may even claim that the language of Frantz Fanon or Karl Marx are, in their threat or implication or incitement of physical violence toward European people or middle class people, abusive stressors that ought not to be tolerated while universities are publicly funded. (Don’t miss the last five words—they are important!)

Please remember that nothing in the above paragraph is ruled out by Barrett’s premises, which only include the arguments that some forms of speech cause stress and are therefore equivalent to violence, and that in conclusion such speech ought to be proscribed.

In contrast to Barrett, I contend that universities cannot be in the business of protecting people from stressors of all sorts. The traditional mission of the university—to produce a well-informed, well-rounded, and cultivated citizenry, especially one capable and competitive in labor—cannot survive such a definition. Especially in so far as a university education no longer guarantees accession to middle-class professions, it may be more urgent for students to become resilient toward the entire universe of non-respectable or -respectful speech they will encounter in the working and living world, much of which remains unpoliced by bureaucracies schooled in progressive thought as modified by psychiatry.

Finally, a word on the meanings of “violence.” Social and even natural scientists often use terms borrowed from the humanities without, understandably, always elaborating on their provenance or implications. The idea of “discursive violence” or “epistemic violence,” which quietly underlies Barrett’s use of “speech is violence,” is one such term. It has its origins in a Marxist-inflected post-structuralism: figures such as Derrida, Foucault, and Spivak claimed that violence was done in the discursive realm when the dominant discourses or languages of any given moment excluded certain other discourses or languages from being heard or, more importantly, from being intelligible if heard. (See here for a useful gloss on Spivak’s use of the term.) This epistemic violence was often enough accompanied by physical violence, from that of colonial occupation to that of incarceration in mental institutions, and that is what gives it force. It does not obviously follow that middle-class students at pricey institutions guarded by police forces and destined for positions of relative social power meet the description of the victims Foucault or Spivak had in mind—and I have to imagine that Spivak, at least, would be quite hostile to the appropriation of this sort of rhetoric by her students at Columbia; part of the point of her famous essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” was to inquire whether she, as a privileged and educated bourgeois cosmopolite, could understand or interpret the subaltern (those Indian women who had died by sati), not that she was one. In fact, I could go even further and say that the dominance of psychology or sociology as disciplines discrediting other ways of understanding psyche and society on models other than rationalization is closer to what post-structuralists meant by “epistemic violence” than something like hate speech as such—a theory that will probably stress out psychology professors!

I would not, however, suggest that we stop analogizing speech and violence totally. So many of our metaphors for non-bodily experience are drawn from bodily experience that it would be hard to do so. Even if I described Barrett’s article as an “irritating” one, that would be a bodily metaphor—as if sandpaper were abrading my skin. Some sentences really will land like blows to the face, even if they are less likely to be ones encountered in university classrooms and more like the following: “You’re fired,” “You have cancer,” “I no longer love you, I’m leaving,” “We did everything we could to save her.” But we should always remember that the metaphor is a metaphor, that the whole concept of education is premised upon the notion that we are not utterly exhausted by biological explanation (what, really, do I learn about myself as a subject and not as a body from contemplating telomeres?), and that we will become prey not only to well-meaning if ill-advised do-gooders but also to positively malign opportunists if we prioritize intellectual comfort over learning. And let us not forget moreover that we will become subjects of universal mockery should we, perched at the top of a world system of power and inequality maintained by very real material agencies, confuse emotional discomfort with physical devastation.


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4 thoughts on “Why Speech Is Not Violence

  1. If the traditional mission of the university is to produce a citizenry “capable and competitive in labor,” wouldn’t the widespread implementation of stressor-free curricula, as long as they are sufficiently heterogeneous, provide an empirical field on which to test their ability to do so? I’m not one of those kitten-eating reptilians that makes a shibboleth of the market (I’m just a kitten-eating reptilian) but your hypothetical anti-Nietzsche, -Darwin, anti-anti-Zionist, anti-obscenity, anti-Fanon & -Marx scenario sounds like a pretty good way to introduce death into the mephitic Arcadia of universities, publicly funded or otherwise, and accelerate it to good result.

    1. Perhaps I am dense, but your final sentence admits of multiple interpretations (death as topos, death of the university tout court, death of the university as Arcadia, death as material fact per your allusion), so I am not quite sure how to respond except to say that I probably intended to advance the somewhat kitten-eating proposition that students should get used to a wide range of discourses any one of which will sometimes be imposed by arbitrary authorities and some of which will have to be resisted covertly or immanently rather than overtly, since this is what they will encounter “in the world.”

  2. Fair point. I was being dramatic, & so unclear.

    What I should have said is: why argue against such a policy? This is the sort of garbage that, if implemented by an individual educational institution, could push it toward meltdown & shuttering. And that’s a good thing. Better for everyone involved that the consequence of an idea like this be economic failure and not just emotional discomfort. But it’s not a lesson that will be learned if individual educational institutions can’t die. Death rather than liquidation because the metaphor should be ecological rather than mercantile. What kind of culling currently happens among educational systems?

    At the same time, what if it’s not garbage? I’m not convinced that the reformers would fail if their aims were more modest, more localized, and part of a more heterogeneous educational field; if their methods included exit as much as or more often than voice; if they were subject to increased reality testing & selection pressure. Look at all those evangelical Christian universities that don’t teach Nietzsche or Darwin. They seem to be doing alarmingly fine. Perhaps there’s room in, uh, Oregon, for, say, five or six universities and two junior colleges that conserve the telomere length of their students through curricular prophylaxis. (Until undischargeable student debt vaporizes almost all of higher education.)

    Either outcome looks tolerable. What’s the fuss?

    1. Yes, I see your point! In fact, I was saying to someone the other day that I didn’t see why there wasn’t more open ideological competition among colleges and universities nowadays, why they don’t all advertise for their own particularized ideological character the way TV news channels do. (I mean, I know why, there are lots of reasons, but with the coming disintermediation–to use that word from our earlier discussion–of educational goods and services as of much else in culture these reasons may diminish.) And in practice, what you describe in your second paragraph happens, I think, at small liberal arts school, art colleges, etc., just as evangelical education happens at Christian universities. Perhaps like my nostalgia for the canons of success defined by traditional literary publishing circa 1950, I am also overly misty about the features that still (but for the last time) defined liberal arts education at public or public-adjacent institutions in my receding youth.

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