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Liberty. Equality. University.

Updated: May 17, 2019

Speech, Violence, and the Bad Idea

Free Speech Slap


On July 18, 2017, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff wrote a piece for The Atlantic called “Why It's a Bad Idea to Tell Students Words Are Violence.” The subtitle cautions that doing so “will make them more anxious and more willing to justify physical harm.” Haidt and Lukianoff counter this “bad idea” using a notion of free speech from the tradition of “Liberal Science”:

“In sum, it was a radical enlightenment idea to tolerate the existence of dissenters, and an even more radical idea to actually engage with them. Universities are—or should be—the preeminent centers of Liberal Science. They have a duty to foster an intellectual climate that separates true ideas from popular but fallacious ones.”

Haidt and Lukianoff demonstrate the legal application of Liberal Science™ with a ruling by Chief Judge Alex Kosinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit:

“The right to provoke, offend, and shock lies at the core of the First Amendment. This is particularly so on college campuses. Intellectual advancement has traditionally progressed through discord and dissent, as a diversity of views ensures that ideas survive because they are correct, not because they are popular. Colleges and universities—sheltered from the currents of popular opinion by tradition, geography, tenure and monetary endowments—have historically fostered that exchange. But that role in our society will not survive if certain points of view may be declared beyond the pale.”

Out of context, some of these lines read like any number of university mission statements. “Diversity,” “progress,” “exchange”: you can already see Powerpoint firing up at the booster club meeting. I’m a former resident of Maricopa County, though, so my curiosity took me to the reports surrounding the case. A math professor, Walter Kehowski, sent several offensive emails to a university distribution list, including lines like “It’s time to acknowledge and celebrate the superiority of Western Civilization,” and that the “only immigration reform imperative is preservation of White majority.”

The court acknowledged that the professor’s words offended non-white readers. “Plaintiffs no doubt feel demeaned by Kehowski’s speech,” the panel observed, “as his very thesis can be understood to be that they are less than equal.”

“But that highlights the problem with plaintiffs’ suit,” they go on to say. “Their objection to Kehowski’s speech is based entirely on his point of view, and it is axiomatic that the government may not silence speech because the ideas it promotes are thought to be offensive.”

Haidt and Lukianoff present this judicial opinion as an “Enlightened” defense of free speech at universities. They fail to acknowledge the actual scope of the case in question, which is what the government can do to people like Kehowski, whose expressions of his first amendment right, as Chief Judge Kosinski points out, “contribute nothing to academic debate,” and do “more harm than good.” They then use that ruling to support their argument for what a school ought to do with complaints about such speech, politely re-coded as “dissent” and “discord.”


Please imagine that I am a good Liberal Scientist. Where do you see me? I imagine a sleek, scholarly Batcave with tasteful bookshelves, warm lighting, and a control panel for tracking crimes against Science. You might have missed Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion on my book stand. It’s lovingly creased. How would I respond to this violent kerfuffle over mean words? I would do so objectively, with rigor, reason, and rectitude. With admirable apperception, like a good Stoic, I would feel my passions of outrage and fear, contemplate their true causes, and then bask in the ataraxia of the perfect logical conclusion.

Ataraxia, from the Greek for “calmness” or “impassivity,” is the odorless incense burning at the altar of Liberal Science™. It is the opposite of violence. The Latin violare means "to treat with violence, outrage, dishonor," by way of vis, “strength, force, power, energy.” “Violent passion” is both a romance-novel cliche and a common experience. When describing our rage or lust or terror, we like to divorce these feelings from ourselves. They wash over us in proverbial waves. We link perceived causes of those passions to the passions themselves, and those causes become hateful to us.

For expediency, Haidt and Lukianoff scope their argument at the level of one such wave: a single hateful speaker like Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley. If we would just think about that event in terms of immediate consequences, they argue, we would realize that the safest option is to calm down:

“[Yiannopoulos] would have faced a gigantic crowd of peaceful protesters, inside and outside the venue. The event would have been over in two hours. Any students who thought his words would cause them trauma could have avoided the talk and left the protesting to others. Anyone who joined the protests would have left with a strong sense of campus solidarity. And most importantly, all Berkeley students would have learned an essential lesson for life in 2017: How to encounter a troll without losing one’s cool. (The goal of a troll, after all, is to make people lose their cool.)”

The cited New York Times article by Amanda Hess on troll culture argues the following:

“Internet trolls work by exploiting the gap between the virtual and the real. They float, weightless and anonymous, across the web, then reach out and rattle people who are pinned down by fixed ideologies, moral codes and human emotions.”

The Troll is to Liberal Science™ as The Joker is to Batman. The Joker prefers history to be “multiple choice.” He describes himself as “a dog chasing cars.” He puts madness at the center of his philosophy, and his great accomplishment is to turn the “white knight” Harvey Dent into the terrifying Two-Face, spectre of the most arbitrary morality: life and death in the flip of a coin.

Figure 1

The difference between The Joker and The Troll is that we all acknowledge that The Joker is a fantasy. The “agent of chaos” is a fantasy of freedom by another name. A total power of action without restraint titillates us. Exposing the hypocrisy of stiff moralists delights us, even if the fallout horrifies us. Hess’s definition perfectly paints the Troll’s stark, white face. He (let’s be real) fancies himself utterly free. No name. No allegiance. No ethics.

We are mistaken to think he has no ideology, though. The fantasy of perfect freedom is his ideology. For the same reason that The Joker is the unstoppable force to Batman’s immovable object, the Troll is the eternal antagonist to the Liberal Scientist. The ugly truth that torments Batman, of course, is that The Joker is also his carnival-mirror image. The radically free villain to confront his Liberal hero (from the Latin liber, ‘free’).

Figure 2

Joker Freak like Me

The Bad Idea

“Free speech, properly understood,” Haidt and Lukianoff claim, “is not violence. It is a cure for violence.”

Lisa Feldman Barrett offers a compelling distinction between offensive speech and abusive speech that inspired this claim:

“Offensiveness is not bad for your body and brain. Your nervous system evolved to withstand periodic bouts of stress, such as fleeing from a tiger, taking a punch or encountering an odious idea in a university lecture . . . What’s bad for your nervous system, in contrast, are long stretches of simmering stress. If you spend a lot of time in a harsh environment worrying about your safety, that’s the kind of stress that brings on illness and remodels your brain. That’s also true of a political climate in which groups of people endlessly hurl hateful words at one another, and of rampant bullying in school or on social media. A culture of constant, casual brutality is toxic to the body, and we suffer for it.”

Haidt and Lukianoff acknowledge this distinction. They even applaud it. They then promptly wash their hands of it as soon as Feldman Barrett puts forward “the bad idea”: that universities use discretion before giving space to a troll like Yiannopoulos. “All I care about is free speech and free expression” quoth the troll, “I want people to be able to be, do and say anything.”

By focusing on the size of the wave, Haidt and Lukianoff ignore the ocean’s motions, even as they claim the contrary: “We are not denying that college students encounter racism and other forms of discrimination on campus, from individuals or from institutional systems. We are, rather, pointing out a fact that is crucial in any discussion of stress and its effects: People do not react to the world as it is; they react to the world as they interpret it, and those interpretations are major determinants of success and failure in life.”

Yes, you just read a scholarly reboot of “I’m not racist, but…”

The Liberal Science™ utility belt comes with a standard-issue derailer. Annoyed by microaggression training? Dismiss these experiences of oppression as subjective—even while admitting there is no other kind of experience—and prescribe some stiff upper lips. While attacking Feldman Barrett’s conclusions, this logic dies gracelessly on the Sword of Validity:

“First invalid inference: Feldman Barrett used these empirical findings to advance a syllogism: ‘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.’ It is logically true that if A can cause B and B can cause C, then A can cause C. But following this logic, the resulting inference should be merely that words can cause physical harm, not that words are violence.”

This criticism disregards the argument’s language, even after directly quoting it. Observe how carefully Feldman Barrett makes her claim. “Words can cause stress” which, prolonged, “can cause physical harm,” so “certain types of speech can be a form of violence.” In saying that Feldman Barrett infers that “words are violence,” Haidt and Lukianoff gut her rigorous claim, then stuff it with straw (see Figure 3).

Figure 3

Straw Man Argument

Reduced to this, Feldman Barrett’s nuanced argument becomes simple to burn, right? Let’s use that torch we carry for the Enlightenment.

As presented, this “weak” equation of words with violence distracts from the strong argument at hand. Expanding our understanding of violence makes logical, clinical, legal, and moral sense. It reflects the lived experience of real people and positions us to care for ourselves and for each other, even in our vehement conflicts.

What Haidt and Lukianoff offer is a regressive mindset cast into a Liberal Science™ mold. “Not all words” are violent, so we shouldn’t give tertiary students ideas about their pain. “I’m not racist, but” our students of colour need their vitriol vaccinations to hack it in the real world.

This, like the judicial ruling cited above, rests on the assumption that Universities actually do breathe rarified air, that moments of discrimination are only moments in a semi-charmed exercise of intellectual freedom. Anyone who can’t take it must be a victim of generational “coddling”:

“We think the mental-health crisis on campus is better understood as a crisis of resilience. Since 2012, when members of iGen first began entering college, growing numbers of college students have become less able to cope with the challenges of campus life, including offensive ideas, insensitive professors, and rude or even racist and sexist peers. Previous generations of college students learned to live with such challenges in preparation for success in the far more offense-filled world beyond the college gates.”

“iGen,” for those nervously tugging at their flannel shirts and hiding their avocadoes, are next in line for their dose of Millennial flack. Rest easy. As for this crisis of resilience: remember the good old days, when University was great again? When racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and other self-evident and universal laws of the jungle were rightfully ignored, uphill both ways? It was a simpler time, when the frogs didn’t complain about the water slowly getting hotter all around them.

Even this able-bodied, cishet, white male of economic and educational privilege from the most powerful country on Earth can recognize such a hollow history. The casting, for one, is abysmal. Milo Yiannopoulos is not the villain we need, but he might be the villain we deserve if we have the gall to call him a “dissenter.” If we think of him as a “lone wolf” in his bilious work, then we whistle past the long graveyard of oppression. He is not the exception. He is the rule, in a glass darkly, enjoying his clownish freedom.

When inconvenient students protest that a venerated university would give time and space to a troll, that is dissent. Their action is not only a difference (dis) in feeling (sentire), it is also a reaction to real pain. Most importantly, these students direct their rage uphill, toward the maintenance structures of power and enablers of systemic violence. Sometimes protests result in assaults, both by and against protestors. Assigning responsibility for this to Snowflake TLC™ might be as irresponsible as blaming exactly one person at a given protest.

Why the discomfort, then, over the common and well-substantiated link between speech and violence? Why describe this rather obvious and intuitive understanding as a dangerous “expansion” of violence as a concept? Charitably speaking, keeping calm and carrying on avoids making implicit violence explicit. This may keep some participants in some protests alive or out of prison. Truthfully speaking, ‘implicit’ violence is a privilege of perspective. Structural, economic, and emotional violence are already explicit to those affected. They arrive at universities with advanced degrees in survival. They will continue to fight, with speech and against speech, because their speech has never been free.

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