It’s not really an age-old question. The author of the Times piece, “neuroscientist” Lisa Feldman Barrett, even acknowledges the quite obvious distinction between threatening violence (using words) and making good on the threat (taking action) before waxing scientific:
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 sick, alter your brain — even kill neurons — and shorten your life.
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.
In other words, if you spend a lot of time worrying about a neighbor who keeps threatening to knock off, it is bad for your health.
The author ultimately wends her way around to the real question she set out to answer in the first place. It’s not whether speech is ever violence. It’s which kinds of speech can be considered violent. The answer — surprise! — is political speech, especially the kind that conservatives are fond of uttering on college campuses.
This question has taken on some urgency in the past few years, as professed defenders of social justice have clashed with professed defenders of free speech on college campuses. Student advocates have protested vigorously, even violently, against invited speakers whose views they consider not just offensive but harmful — hence the desire to silence, not debate, the speaker. “Trigger warnings” are based on a similar principle: that discussions of certain topics will trigger, or reproduce, past trauma — as opposed to merely challenging or discomfiting the student. The same goes for “microaggressions.”
Trigger warnings? Microaggressions? Yes, she went there!
It seems not to have occurred to Barrett that if her premise is valid, then it cuts both ways. Conservatives can also claim to be “harmed” by views they disagree with.
Alex Griswold, who writes for the Washington Free Beacon, has a little fun with this glaring double standard, tweeting out:
The problem is, this op-ed made me very angry.
Why is the New York Times engaging in violence?
— Alex Griswold (@HashtagGriswold) July 16, 2017
It’s fascinating meantime to observe how liberals cling stubbornly and naïvely to the notion that there are those on the right and those in the right, and that the two are mutually exclusive.