Free Speech and Violence: A Response


Free speech is pivotal to the fight for White people’s rights, and more generally for a free and honest society. We must be able to discuss facts from all possible angles. We must be free to have opinions about those facts no matter who agrees or disagrees with us. This is critical, and everyone should care about the debate currently raging around the topic of free speech.

This past Friday the New York Times ran an opinion piece by psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett entitled “When is Speech Violence?” Now, this sounds a heck of a lot like numerous other attacks on free speech the Left has been making over the last few months, and so it is no surprise that the Washington Examiner rolled its eyes and declared it the “latest idiotic attack on free speech,” but although I ultimately agree that Barrett’s argument is wrong, I think it is entirely imprudent to treat it like all the others: because Barrett’s argument is actually quite different from any other one I’ve heard.

Her argument can be summarized like this: speech can do real physical damage to your body because it can cause stress. Periodic stress is not all that damaging, but chronic stress can be very damaging even shortening lifespan. Because of this people who speak abusively about controversial topics should be considered as speaking violently while those who approach controversial topics in a calm rational manner, in a desire to engage debate should not be considered violent no matter how strongly you may object to their views. She uses Milo Yiannopoulos as an example of a violent speaker and Charles Murray as an example of a non-violent speaker.

Now, there are several glaring problems here which I will address shortly. First though, I think we need to talk about the proper response to such an argument.

In his response, the Washington Examiner’s Tom Rogan states that “Barrett wants us to regard her argument as nuanced and intellectual. We should not do so.” This is unfortunate, and I think Rogan is wrong here.  Barrett’s argument is significantly more nuanced than any other argument I have heard claiming that some speech should be considered violence. It is also more intellectual (by that I mean it attempts to use real and actual science to back itself up).

We can’t afford to just dismiss this type of an argument like all the rest. In battles—whether waged with the sword or the pen, on a battlefield or in politics—you must match your opponent move for move. If you don’t you will lose. When the opposition moves into a more nuanced and intellectual mode you must respond with a more nuanced and intellectual rebuttal. We do ourselves no favors by underestimating our opposition, or by underestimating the ability of those watching the fray to discern who is able to keep up best with his opponent.

Additionally, Barrett’s argument here, on its face, disposes of one of the most obvious flaws in other similar arguments. Any remotely sane person will laugh at the notion that mere hurt feelings are violence. If one can demonstrate actual physical harm however, no matter how slight, the argument changes completely. It is at least a question worthy of debate whether or not stress related harm counts as violence. Even if I may ultimately disagree, the question is not one to just be laughed off.  A more serious argument needs a more serious response.

It is for these reasons that I think Barrett’s piece deserves a real response from free speech advocates.

Before I go further, I just want to take note here as a race realist of the fact that Barrett is willing to allow Murray to speak freely and argues that advocacy of race realism is not inherently violent. This is a great start.

However, I think that her argument is poorly reasoned and doesn’t fit the evidence she presents. I want to go through the reasons I ultimately reject her argument one by one:

Barrett’s Argument Assumes that All Violence Should be Illegal: As someone who appreciates the importance of non-verbal communication and forms of body language, and who knows how important both harsh and gentle touch can be to communication, I have always been exasperated by the line of thinking that all violent touch should be illegal. I have always emphasized physical injury (although even that line can be blurry).

Leaving off for now the debate over the precise definition of violence—most people have a general understanding of violence as being either some form of harsh touch, or the causing of pain or injury—I think on some level, we all accept some violence as necessarily legal. If I have to slap someone who is asleep in a burning building hard enough to cause a bruise to wake them up so they can escape, that is probably violence, but should it be a crime? A majority of the country believes that causing pain through spanking children as a form of discipline should be legal.

The point is, that even if we accept the notion that some speech is violent we can’t just assume from there that it ought to be illegal. Even if it is decided that some speech is violent we would still need to weigh the pros and cons before deciding whether it should be illegal or whether to strip it of first amendment protection.

Barrett’s Argument Fails to Account for Personal Choice: Barrett talks about speech as if it is something which is forced onto people. But in reality, nobody is forced to use Twitter, or listen to Milo Yiannopolous. If you find that Milo raises your stress levels, just don’t listen to him. You don’t have to read anything about him either if you don’t want to.

Stress is not some sort of magical property that can be transferred to you by an event whether or not you experience it. For an event to cause you stress, you must experience it and know about it. If you don’t want to be stressed by Milo (or anyone else) just don’t listen to them. If you choose to listen to someone than arguably you are choosing the stress that you experience as a result, and nobody would argue that all experiences of stress—without regard to whether they are consensual or not—should be illegal.

Barrett’s Argument Fails to Account for the Control People Have Over Their Stress Levels: Even if you do come into contact with a potentially stressful stimuli—whether on purpose of by accident—you will not necessarily experience dangerous levels of stress. Your approach to a situation or stimulus actually has a very strong influence on how must stress you will ultimately experience—and that is 100% under your control. Strong people, those with good self-control, and good attitudes about a potential stressor, don’t experience the same damaging stress.

What this means is that you can really decide whether or not to be stressed. Milo can’t really cause your stress, you can allow yourself to get stressed over him. Perhaps instead of censoring speakers we should teach people how better to handle stimuli they find negative so that they don’t have damaging stressful responses.

Barrett Does Not Define Her Key Terms: Barrett’s argument on how speech should be determined to be violent or not turns on a distinction between speech she calls “abusive” and speech she calls “merely offensive” but nowhere does she define these terms. What precisely separates abusive speech (which she asserts is violence) from speech that is merely offensive?

Her examples are muddled and unclear, however she seems to be implying that speakers who present an idea in a calm manner, and are open to debate (as she characterizes Murray) are merely offensive, but those which present an idea in an intentionally insulting or provocative manner, not really intending to have a serious debate (as she characterizes Milo) are abusive. Since she is unclear on this point, I will proceed with this interpretation of her position.

This position is problematic for multiple reasons, not merely because it has been a hallmark argument for speech codes in other countries that have gone horribly wrong, but because free speech means free speech: presenting an idea in a deliberately insulting manner is not always a strategic method, but it should not be illegal.

It appears that Barrett would like it if people would be less emotionally expressive with their words. I would also (since less emotionalism is almost always better in such circumstances) but this is an unrealistic goal. And in case Barrett is not aware, emotional outbursts are not limited to the political context or to controversial words or topics: does Barrett want to outlaw swear words now?

Sometimes people vent. Sometimes people are insulting. On purpose. Sometimes it’s good, but probably most of the time it’s not. Should it be illegal? No.

Barrett’s Argument Does Not Fit Her Evidence: Barrett uses the first few paragraphs of her piece to present the case that prolonged or chronic stress = harm = violence. She very carefully distinguishes between periodic stress and chronic or prolonged stress, and argues that causing the former is not violence but causing the latter is. She argues that this scientific framework can tell us which speech to suppress and which to allow. Then she tells us which speech to suppress: abusive speech. Do you see a problem here?

Nowhere does Barrett connect abusive speech to prolonged stress. Of course since she does not provide a definition of abusive speech, this is a little bit of a problem. But, she states that suppressing Milo’s speech is acceptable because he is “part of something noxious, a campaign of abuse,” and earlier she states that a “culture of constant, casual brutality is toxic to the body,” thus indicating that prolonged stress is, quite naturally, caused by prolonged exposure to a stressor.

The problem here, is that Milo came to speak for maybe an hour, and so did Charles Murray, but Barrett would have us suppress Milo but allow Murray to speak. If we take the definition of abusive speech that she seems to be aiming at (i.e. speech that is intentionally insulting and not aimed at debate) then there is no clear connection to prolonged stress.

While listening to Milo for an hour might conceivably be more stressful than listening to Murray for an hour, that should simply result in a higher level of periodic stress, not prolonged stress. The argument simply doesn’t work.  Listening to Milo for an hour shouldn’t result in more prolonged stress than listening to Murray for an hour, regardless of how much “abusive” speech Milo used: the time spent exposed to the stressor is the same.

If her argument is going to be that Milo is part of a larger campaign of stressors and Murray is not, her argument still does not make any sense: first off, how do we define a “campaign of abuse”? Secondly, such a “culture of casual brutality” must be built on successive events of periodic stressors, but each one is only a periodic stressor so how does this work? Whether Milo is part of a larger “campaign of abuse” or not, should not affect the amount of time anyone who comes to listen to one of his speeches is exposed to him as a stressor. Thus, regardless of what he has done in the past or plans to do in the future, to each audience he will never be more than a periodic stressor.

Simply put, her argument is a non sequitur: she argues that prolonged stress is violence, then argues that abusive speech is violence, even though she never argues that abusive speech is a prolonged stressor, capable of causing prolonged stress.

Barrett’s Argument Does Not Solve the Problem of Who Decides What is Abusive: This is a danger present in all attempts to regulate speech: bias. It is present anytime a law is written to regulate speech, because such regulation is almost inherently subjective, and prone to manipulation as a tool against one’s political opponents rather than a law applied consistently. Worse still, criterion like what Barrett proposes (i.e. “abusive” speech may be suppressed) makes matters still worse: a term like “abusive” is inherently subjective, and attempts to define it objectively are likely to fail. Who gets to decide when speech is abusive and when it is not?

Speech regulation sounds good to some people (not myself) on its face, but the reality is that it will always become nothing more than a bludgeon with which to harass and silence one’s political opponents. Political debate and free exchange of information are such critical rights to a free government and a representative democracy that we cannot afford to risk them at any cost. Certainly a little stress to some people is not a good enough reason to silence dissenting voices.

And when only one side is allowed to be heard, because they have designated the positions of their opponents “abusive speech” democracy suffers. Knowledge suffers. Science suffers. Interpersonal relations suffer. And every aspect of society suffers.

Nature tells us that all truth is found in competition. In order to build a society on reality and not on fables, we must be open to finding reality, and that means letting all ideas compete in the arena of public opinion.

“One does not build a healthy society on error. One faces the truth, and deals with it as best one can.”

~Carlton Putnam, Race and Reason, p.12 


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