Hate Speech Hocus Pocus
What was it we used to say when we were kids? “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Not!, according to Lisa Feldman Barrett, professor of psychology at Northeastern University. (She has a nice web page, maybe I should get someone to help me redesign mine....) Words can hurt. Not directly like physical blows, but through their effects on our nervous system. In Barrett’s words, published last Sunday in the newspaper of national record (did that hurt?), words can “make you sick, alter your brain – even kill neurons – and shorten your life.”
We know this because science.
Your body’s immune system includes little proteins called proinflammatory cytokines [NB fancy words!] that cause inflammation when you’re physically injured [for example, with sticks and stones]. Under certain conditions, however, these cytokines [that fancy word again] themselves can cause physical illness [because they’re, like, proteins, that is, physical. Try to keep up, 007]. What are those conditions? One of them is chronic stress. [Note bait-and-switch: stress as such may be a form of violence, as opposed, say, to the necessary condition for learning. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have some words to say about this.]
Your body also contains little packets of genetic material [now we are invoking Darwin, which is how you know this is science] that sit on the ends of your chromosomes [those things that determine how you develop physically, which we get from our male and female parents--sorry, was that hate speech?]. They’re called telomeres [another fancy word!]. Each time your cells divide, their telomeres get a little shorter [I didn’t know this, should I be worried? Apparently, yes], and when they become too short, you die [mortality, the human condition; no, wait, we are supposed to be immortal, if only our telomeres didn’t get shorter? I’m confused]. This is normal aging [oh, good]. But guess what else shrinks your telomeres? [Umm....] Chronic stress.Once upon a time, such stress was called “life.” Do you remember? Not anymore.
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?Aha! You know exactly where this is going, don’t you? Professor Barrett backpedals a bit here, perhaps anticipating the kinds of criticisms that Professors Haidt and Lukianoff would bring to bear on her words. It is not (her word) “offensiveness” that is the problem:
Your nervous system [see, we’re still talking bodies here, even though now we are talking about words] evolve [more science] to withstand periodic bouts of stress, such as fleeing from a tiger, taking a punch or encountering an odious idea in a university lecture.
[Pretty good going, evolution! Especially considering university lectures have only been around for, oh, thirty generations or so, and most people had no contact with them until, say, one or two generations ago. Just saying. Tigers and punches are older; even lobsters know about dominance hierarchies, and we separated from them millions of generations ago. Maybe evolution works faster in university settings. Sorry, I’m getting a little carried away. It must be the fancy scientific words.]Rather, it is “abusive” speech that we should be wary of. What counts as “abusive” speech? You know! You don’t? That’s okay, Professor Barrett spells it out for us:
What’s bad for your nervous system...are long stretches of simmering stress [which, Professor Barrett is careful to point out, is different from the stress you experience when confronted with ideas that you find offensive]. If you spend a lot of time in a harsh environment worrying about your safety [for example, as a woman living in a community in which her male and female relatives insist she wear a veil or they will kill her– whoops! Is that hate speech?], 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 [What was it my colleagues in medieval studies called me? Oh, right, I started it by giving “three cheers for white men,” “white” now being permissible only as a term of abuse], and of rampant bullying in school or on social media. [Some tips on how to deal with this kind of bullying here and here.] A culture of constant, casual brutality is toxic to the body, and we suffer for it. [Wait for it...]
That’s why it’s reasonable, scientifically speaking, not to allow a provocateur and hatemonger like Milo Yiannopoulos [touché!] to speak at your school. He is part of something noxious, a campaign of abuse. There is nothing to be gained from debating him [just what my departmental colleague Amy Stanley said about me!], for debate is not what he is offering. [How would Professor Barrett know? Has she heard Milo speak? Amy has known me for over twenty years, and she simply assumed I was not worth debating. She never asked me.]The political and legal arguments against this kind of “scientific” reasoning more or less write themselves. Or, at least, they should, if the First Amendment actually means anything, even for speakers like Milo, “stupid as he is” (Really, NR? We used to be friends!):
The First Amendment doesn’t have a “stress” clause. And this is exactly why it exists. Totalitarian movements can always find plausible seeming excuses for censorship. That’s why the First Amendment bans them from even attempting the exercise. – Daniel Greenfield, Frontpage Mag
Barrett poses as a faithful interpreter of scientific evidence, determined to protect students from the words endangering their telomeres. But in reality, her argument would pave the path to the criminalization of unpopular speech. “Violence” is dangerous, after all, and it merits state violence to subdue and prevent it. By her logic, any controversial speaker could be grouped with a “campaign” of some sort and thus made into a contributor to something akin to physical violence in its effects. – Elliot Kaufman, National Review
The left has spent decades successfully normalizing the intentionally vague term “hate speech” in the culture, even going so far as to insist that it should not be protected by the First Amendment. But what is “hate speech”? It’s anything the left wants it to be, of course. When the media elites of CNN or HBO or The View or late night talk shows openly bash Christians or the traditional values of flyover Americans, it is never, ever condemned as hate speech; but those same elites leap to denounce virtually everything the right says as such. It is a brilliantly effective way to delegitimize conservatives and their ideas, and to exclude them from the public sphere. Now illiberals want to take the concept of hate speech to the next level, redefining the word “violence” to include emotionally hurtful language, and Barrett and the New York Times are attempting to legitimize this scientifically. – Mark Tapson, Frontpage MagAs Milo has repeatedly said, there is no such thing, legally speaking, as “hate speech.” Even the Supreme Court agrees. So why do we keep hearing about “hate speech” and its capacity for violence?
In a word: transubstantiation. You know, the doctrine according to which the bread and wine of the Eucharist transubstantiate into the flesh and blood of Christ when the priest speaks the words “Hoc est corpus meum.” (Ha! Take that, anti-Christian elites!) I’m serious, which is what makes the irony all the more delicious. Professor Barrett thinks she is arguing scientifically, when what she is actually doing is arguing theologically. In, of course, the best medieval tradition – you know, what the universities were originally founded for, back when questions like whether you could change the substance of things simply by speaking about them were matters of real debate, not just weapons in a culture war. (What? Did I hear you say something about accusations of heresy? Sorry, no heretics here, we’re liberals. We welcome debate. Even from conservatives like Milo. I’m sorry, I’ll stop. That must have been painful. What with, you know, your sides splitting and all.)
But the debate is older than the universities. It goes back – wait for it – to the Dark Ages, when even Christians were not yet sure how to explain the mystery at the heart of their faith. (Technically, I know, for everyone outside medieval studies the whole “Middle Ages” counts as “dark.” Think Carolingians, if you know who they were. The first ones in western Europe to have to deal with waves of Muslim immigrants, just FYI. Plus Vikings, of course.) Back in the day, Charlemagne – you know him, it is his empire that the founders of the EU wanted to replicate — had spent decades trying to convince the pagan Saxons to convert. He had tried everything: sending his armies into their territory, destroying their sacred shrines, deporting masses of them into Frankia, herding them into rivers at sword point so that they could be baptized. Eventually, his advisors like Alcuin of York convinced him (or, at least, his son Louis the Pious) that these strong-arm tactics would not work. What was needed was not physical violence (See? See? Even medieval barbarians could tell the difference), but speech.
More specifically, reasoned speech to explain what the Saxons found most difficult to comprehend: how, exactly, the priest speaking words over the bread and wine could do something. In contrast, for example, with runes. (I make this argument in detail in the first chapter of my book From Judgment to Passion, if you want it in full.) Runes, you see, were a kind of magic words with which the Saxons – or their pagan ancestors – would have been much more familiar. You wanted to make something potent, like, say, a sword, you didn’t just mumble some mysterious words over it, you carved the letters into the very substance of the thing. These were the secret letters that Odin (or Woden) hung for nine days on the tree to bring back from the realm of the dead. If written correctly, they could, among other things, “cure illnesses, make fetters fly off, stop spears in flight, put out fires, reconcile strife between heroes, scatter witches, protect companions in battle, and inspire irresistible love in women” (I’m quoting myself here, p. 38.) But – and here was the catch – they had to be written, not just spoken aloud.
And then along came the Christians, insisting that the spoken – not written or carved – word had the power to transform the physical world. Here is the way the monk Paschasius Radbertus, writing sometime around 830 A.D., explained it to the Saxon novices at the monastery of Corvey:
It is not to be doubted that the communion of Christ is his true body and blood, for every Catholic who rightly believes in his heart in righteousness and confesses by his mouth in salvation that God created all things out of nothing will never be able to doubt that it is possible that out of one thing another might be made, as if against nature, or indeed by a law of nature, that did not previously exist. For the nature of all creatures does not exist of itself, nor of themselves again do they create all those things that are born from them; rather the nature of all things is authored by the will of God.Sound familiar? Okay, maybe not, unless, of course, you have been reading Professor Barrett. Just substitute “evolution” for “the will of God,” and you will start to see. So evolution – sorry, God – creates everything out of nothing – sorry, DNA. No, wait, now I’m confused. Because, you see, we are arguing reality, which we human beings perceive (as Professor Peterson has shown) always already through stories, that is, myths. And here, with Paschasius as with the clashes between elite liberals and flyover conservatives, we are dealing with competing mythologies, the one insisting that spoken words can wound, the other insisting that for words to hurt they need to be given actual physical form.
Except, of course, it is the flyover conservatives who tend to believe in the miracle that Paschasius was describing (we call it the doctrine of the Real Presence), and the elite liberals who insist they do not. (Or maybe they do, I keep losing track of who is on whose side any more.) Believe it or not, Paschasius was asking the Saxons to make quite a leap by insisting that they take his word or, rather, the word of the priest as transformative of physical reality in a way that previously they had expected only physical markings to be able to do. And yet, in the sixteenth century, along came the Protestant reformers to insist that the doctrine as Paschasius had described it was so much hocus pocus. Not scientific at all.
The idea of “hate speech” is a categorically similar heresy. I wrote about this back in February, as one person of the “unholy Trinity” of the Left. The idea of “hate speech” depends upon the idea at the root of Western civilization, that the Word – the Logos – took on flesh and entered into the world to suffer the infirmities of the flesh. This is likewise the idea behind the argument that Professor Barrett would make, that speech can be classed as violent because it induces physiological changes in the listener. One wants simply to say, “Duh. People are emotionally affected by things that they hear.” But we in the post-Christian West are still, at root, Christian in the mythologies by which we perceive the world (I know! I will keep saying it, mischief-maker that I am!), so arguments about words having a physical impact sound, well, true, in way that they would not, say, in a culture founded on the idea that God did not entangle himself physically in the world, where they might simply sound crazy – or blasphemous. (You know what I mean. Try it yourself, say, in Paris, the birthplace of scholastic theology.)
It is also the reason that what Milo is doing – taking his speech physically onto our college campuses – strikes so many of our liberal elites as physically dangerous: he is, as I have argued over and over again, performing a role, incarnating the Logos, as it were, by speaking the truth. Which, before you get all hot and bothered with me, is what Christians are supposed to do: imitate Christ. (It says so right here, in Paul.) Of course Milo seems physically threatening when all he does is speak. What else would he seem in a culture in which the Word is believed to have become flesh? It is also, of course, why Milo does what he does to make himself ridiculous. Because in a reality in which God himself entered into the creation which he made out of nothing through the womb of a woman, his own creature, there is nothing shameful about being a human being, nothing shameful about laughter or joy or longing to imitate the creativity of God. Unless, of course, you think it blasphemous to worship the Word.
Image credit: Ben Shapiro