Contrary To Popular Belief, Words Are Not Violence

Professor Lisa Barrett’s argument scribed in the form of a New York Times column posits that Milo Yiannopoulos’ incendiary approach to social and political debate equates to the intentional infliction of violence upon its dissenting listeners. The logical inconsistencies within the piece are as rampant as you may suspect.

Barrett begins her dubious lecture by posing a scenario followed by a question:

“Imagine that a bully threatens to punch you in the face. A week later, he walks up to you and breaks your nose with his fist. Which is more harmful: the punch or the threat?”

The question seems straightforward enough: what is more harmful, the threat of violence, or the reality of violence?

It’s the difference between assault and battery, and clearly, the infliction of violence is more harmful than the mere threat of violence. If beforehand, one was to know that the threat would necessarily be followed by the act of violence, then it could be argued that they are essentially one in the same.

So, it’s the punch, not the threat, that is more harmful, right?


“But scientifically speaking, it’s not that simple. Words can have a powerful effect on your nervous system. Certain types of adversity, even those involving no physical contact, can make you sickalter your brain— even kill neurons — and shorten your life.”

It’s true. Words can, in certain instances and contexts, contribute to the onset of negative health issues. Keep in mind though that Barrett’s argument is not whether words can have harmful effects.

Her argument is that words, particularly those meant to incite irrational levels of rage within dissenting communities, are necessarily equatable to a punch in the face. A punch in the face-one delivered through the arm of The Rock, let’s say- is necessarily going to result in a trip to the emergency room. Whether the knuckle sandwich is fed to a prepubescent teen, a healthy adult male, or your grandmother, there’s going to be bloodshed and medical attention will be required.

It’s not a pretty picture, but that is the point.

Were The Rock to shout demeaning insults at the same collection of people instead of punching them, according to Barrett-logic, the major health consequences would necessarily result with less frequency and/or severity.

Obviously, this is not the strongest argument. Perhaps tweenage Timmy doesn’t have the constitution to withstand verbal abuse from The Rock, internalizes the consistent berating, and develops a life-altering condition as a result.

Offer Timmy a punch in the face instead. My bet: Timmy would gladly take the slim odds of developing early-onset hypertension over the certainty of The Rock’s knuckle-sandwich slinging prowess.

Not. so. fast:

“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?”

Again, Barrett’s not necessarily wrong. She is, however, abusing the tiny thread of logic holding together her outsized claim that words and violence are one in the same.

Words can and do cause stress. Words can contribute to physical harm, if delivered over a long enough period to a sensitive enough recipient.

A punch delivered from mongo the meathead will cause stress. Being on the receiving end of such an act of physical violence will cause physical harm.

However, the author continues to ignore this logical elephant in the room, the unavoidable hole in her premise of equality between sticks, stones, and words:

There’s a reason that Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather will receive a combined purse easily surpassing $500 million to trade blows to the head. There’s a certainty of physical violence, and certainty of bodily harm. And people pay to see that kind of guaranteed carnage.

There’s a reason professional thinkers don’t pull down $500 million to trade verbal jabs, or endure six-months of recovery afterward to get back into debating shape. Skill and qualifications aside, the difference between trading words and trading jabs is obvious to most.

Professor Lisa Barrett of Northeastern University persists in swimming against the current of the intellectual Gulf Stream. She does, to her credit, put herself in her critics’ shoes:

“This idea — that there is often no difference between speech and violence — has struck many as a coddling or infantilizing of students, as well as a corrosive influence on the freedom of expression necessary for intellectual progress.” 

She gives credence to her critics’ sentiments.

Then she proceeds to lecture the reader on which type of speech is free, and which is not:

“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.”

Words can be equated to violence, she maintains, so long as those words are spouted by walking liberal-kryptonite Milo Yiannopoulos:

“That’s why it’s reasonable, scientifically speaking, not to allow a provocateur and hatemonger like Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at your school.” 

The logic behind this not-so-stunning conclusion:

“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.”

This is typical of critics of Milo and his ilk: if you don’t feel comfortable with the viewpoint, delivery, or word choice, label the speaker’s words as intolerable to the human conscience, beyond the realm of civilized debate.

Contrary to those who clearly hear Milo- whether they agree with him or not- articulating very real ideas and viewpoints. Despite Barrett’s assertion, the ideas can be debated, and they can be argued against without somebody enduring physical harm in the process. They aren’t nuclear radiation, they’re words.

Barrett does make a prescient observation differentiating Milo’s inflammatory routine from scholars such as Charles Murray:

“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.”

This is a wise distinction for anybody to make when considering the source of the information they choose to ingest. But this distinction should be merely observed and acted upon accordingly. The differences between Charles Murray and Milo Yiannopoulos cannot be the line upon which we define free speech.

Further, Barrett never mends the logical disconnect which she created: how can speech be labeled as abuse if nobody is forced to listen?

It has yet to be reported that students are being compelled to sit-in on Milo’s speeches. Perhaps Barrett just forgot to add in that crucial detail.

Despite advocating for the banning of certain speech on college campuses, Barrett adds this aside:

“By all means, we should have open conversations and vigorous debate about controversial or offensive topics.”

“By all means.”

Except by means of free speech, apparently.

Related News