Facts So Romantic

How to Defuse Offensive Speech

The claim that speech can be violence is dangerous, it is argued, because it exacerbates the emotional vulnerability that’s already rampant in the “Internet generation,” of which today’s undergraduates are a part.Image by Eduard Bezembinder / Flickr

If you Google “It’s been emotional,” even without quotes, you’ll find that a clip from Guy Ritchie’s 1998 British crime comedy, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, tops the page. Vinnie Jones delivers the line as the leather jacket-wearing Big Chris, a no-nonsense debt enforcer and devoted single-father from East London. You can buy a “badass” badge or T-shirts glorifying his parting words. But perhaps the most prominent use of the line came, a few years ago, from Jones himself—he used it as the title of his autobiography, It’s Been Emotional: My Story. It fit. Much of what Jones disclosed, he aired to his psychotherapist. “I’ve been going to see him once a week for eight months at the time of writing this, and we’ve got the dog at the back of the kennel,” he writes—the “dog” being his emotions. Ritchie introduced Jones to this Kabbalistic manner of recategorizing his unruly feelings, which his character, Big Chris, at times shares. “In Kabbalah, the dog is a symbol of demonic powers,” writes the Jewish novelist Judy Brown in The Forward. A “person’s evil impulses must be controlled like a vicious dog on a leash.” Jones says since childhood his dog has been a “big, angry bastard…one I should have spent more time understanding how to keep under control.”

Oftentimes what’s legitimate criticism can be taken as verbal assault.

The neuroscientist and psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett lends credence to Ritchie’s Kabbalistic advice to Jones in a chapter titled “Mastering Your Emotions,” from her recent book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. That sort of recategorization “is a critical tool for mastering your emotions in the moment,” she writes, recommending microbial imagery: “When you feel bad, treat yourself like you have a virus, rather than assuming that your unpleasant feelings mean something personal.” She speaks from experience. One of her anecdotes has her husband finding her sobbing on the kitchen floor after her laptop dies, the final frustrating thing to go wrong during a stressful move, in 2010, to a new university lab. “Are you premenstrual?” her husband honestly wonders. “Oh. My. God. I lashed out at him, the goddamn sexist pig and how dare he be so smug when I’m barely holding my life together?” she writes. “My fury shocked us both. And three days later, I discovered he was right.” What her husband was right about, Feldman Barrett suggests, was the main source of her anguish in that moment—although she was genuinely stressed out, it was imparting her premenstrual sensations with emotional meaning, she says, that made her overly and unnecessarily distraught. “With practice,” she writes, “you can learn to deconstruct an affective feeling into its mere physical sensations, rather than letting those sensations be a filter through which you view the world.”

This is good advice—it helped Jones. So I was surprised to see Feldman Barrett arguing, in a recent New York Times op-ed, that speech could be “literally a form of violence.” Isn’t that, rather, a matter of letting painful sensations, like being hurt by what someone says, affect the way you see the world? 

No. “In short, the answer depends on whether the speech is abusive or merely offensive,” Feldman Barrett writes. The latter, she thinks, can be good for you to hear. “The process feels unpleasant, but it’s a good kind of stress—temporary and not harmful to your body—and you reap the longer-term benefits of learning.” What she considers “abusive speech,” on the other hand, is not so good: It can have a “powerful effect on your nervous system,” she writes. “Certain types of adversity, even those involving no physical contact, can make you sickalter your brain—even kill neurons—and shorten your life.” This damaging sort of adversity, she believes, manifests on college campuses when figures like the alt-right “provocateur and hatemonger,” Milo Yiannopoulos, come to speak. “By all means, we should have open conversations and vigorous debate about controversial or offensive topics,” she writes. “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 conclusion wouldn’t go unrebutted for long. Less than a week later, Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at N.Y.U., and Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, wrote in The Atlantic that, from the perspective of logic, Feldman Barrett’s claim is fallacious. Adversity caused by abusive speech may be physically harmful, they write, but that doesn’t mean it’s “a form of violence.” For them, “actual violence” is “real, physical”—the intuitive dictionary definition. They offer this counterexample: “Re-run the syllogism starting with ‘gossiping about a rival,’ for example, or ‘giving one’s students a lot of homework.’ Both practices can cause prolonged stress in others, but that doesn’t turn them into forms of violence.”

Nowhere has this emotion been more salient recently than in the cry for censorship, and other forms of social control, on university campuses.

Saying it does exacerbates the emotional vulnerability that’s already rampant in the “Internet generation,” they argue, of which today’s undergraduates are a part. The social psychologist Jean Twenge, in her upcoming book iGen, shows that the mental health of Americans born after the mid 90s is distinctly poorer than older generations. “When the book is released in August, Americans will likely be stunned by her findings,” Haidt and Lukianoff write. “Graph after graph shows the same pattern: Lines drift mildly up or down across the decades as baby boomers are followed by Gen-X, which is followed by the millennials. But as soon as the data includes iGen—those born after roughly 1994—the rates of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and suicide spike upward.” Twenge’s subtitle to the book is a mouthful: “Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us.” A shorter one summarizing the plight of the typical iGen’s life might be: “It’s been emotional.”

Nowhere has this emotion been more salient recently than in the cry for censorship, and other forms of social control, on university campuses. Perhaps the most stunning example of this of late was at Evergreen State, a small liberal arts college in Olympia, Washington, where all white people were invited to stay off campus for a day. When a professor of evolutionary biology there, Bret Weinstein, refused, arguing that this perverted the school’s noble and long-standing “Day of Absence” tradition—in which students of color, starting in the 1970s, voluntarily stayed off campus to highlight their role in the campus community—he was called a white supremacist and is now, after threats of violence against him and his family, in hiding.

Haidt and Lukianoff argue that events like this will only become more common if people continue to encourage conflating ostensibly offensive speech or decisions, like Weinstein’s, and “systemic violence,” which some students accused him of perpetrating. “Threats, intimidation, and incitement” are forms of speech that can lead to violence, they point out, and that’s rightly excluded from protected “free speech.” But that doesn’t mean that those forms of speech count as violence in themselves. Yiannopoulos-type trolls, they argue, don’t cross this line and should be allowed to be speak even if their stated aim is to make “the lives of journalists, professors, politicians, feminists, Black Lives Matter activists, and other professional victims a living hell.” Hearing the trolls, or deciding not to, imparts, they argue, “an essential lesson for life in 2017”—and probably for many years to come: “How to encounter a troll without losing one’s cool. (The goal of a troll, after all, is to make people lose their cool.)”

If the iGen don’t learn to keep their cool, and the idea that speech is violence becomes more widespread, it could encourage physical violence: “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,” they write. “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.” They’re not alone in thinking this. In a 2012 paper Harry van der Linden, a philosopher at Butler University, argues that the problem with seeing offensive or abusive speech as violence of a kind is that “it lends itself to a too-easy and rather broad justification of revolutionary violence as counter-violence” to so-called “systemic” forms of violence, like speech.

When I asked Feldman Barrett to respond to this criticism, she agreed that the idea of violent speech has been used propagandistically, for example, “to suppress free speech and weaken democracy.” She’s opposed to that. What she wants to see suppressed is “verbal aggression” which, “if it persists, can be biologically damaging to your nervous system. Inviting speakers who just hurl words as weapons is not teaching students anything.”

But oftentimes what’s legitimate criticism can be taken, and mistaken, as verbal assault. Last week, Richard Dawkins’ speaking event in Berkeley was cancelled at the last moment when the radio station hosting it, KPFA, received complaints that Dawkins had, on Twitter and elsewhere, engaged in “abusive speech” against Islam that “offended and hurt…so many people.” Dawkins would have spoken about his new book, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist. Any normal fact-checking on the radio’s part, he said, would have shown the complaints to be unfounded. (The Huffington Post has curated some of his “most controversial” tweets here, if you’re curious.)

In How Emotions Are Made, Feldman Barrett says her daughter, who takes karate lessons, one time heard her teacher, Grandmaster Joe Esposito, tell his nervous students before their black belt test, “Make your butterflies fly in formation.” Feldman Barrett tells us, “He is saying yes, you feel worked up right now, but don’t perceive it as nervousness: construct an instance of ‘Determination.’ Recategorization of this kind can bring tangible benefits to your life.”

What tangible benefits might the iGens see if we told them something similar? Yes, you feel hurt right now because of abusive speech, but don’t perceive it as violence: instead construct an instance of “Imperviousness,” or another useful recategorization. Feldman Barrett’s on board with this. “For a single instance of stress, like someone hurling hateful words, deconstruction is the way to go,” she wrote in an email. “But keep in mind that it takes training to be able to do it, and it is quite effortful.”

It’s been emotional, this strife over speech. Vinnie Jones might say it’s time to get this dog—a yappy Yorkshire terrier, perhaps—far back in kennel.

Brian Gallagher is the editor of Facts So Romantic, the Nautilus blogFollow him on Twitter @brianga11agher.

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WATCH: The neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett on why your emotions are social reality.

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