Free speech seems to be, ironically enough, one of the most controversial topics for discussion these days, especially on college campuses. Its proponents say it’s necessary, for democracy and understanding, to allow all kinds of speech, while its opponents say it needs to be limited so as to not harm anyone.
In fact, there exists an argument for limiting certain kinds of speech formulated by neuroscientist, Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Writing for the New York Times, she claims that because speech can lead to stress, it is harmful and therefore violent.
A distinguished professor at Northeastern University, Barrett essentially argues that prolonged stress affects the brain cells in a negative way, and because what someone else says might trigger that stress, that speech is “literally a form of violence.”
She even argues that rejecting a figure like Milo Yiannopoulos is “reasonable; scientifically speaking” because he is “part of something noxious, a campaign of abuse. There is nothing to be gained from debating him, for debate is not what he is offering.”
Because one might undergo long periods of stress from a controversial speaker coming to campus, they are experiencing a form of violence. Therefore, we must “halt speech that bullies and torments,” she concludes.
There are three logical problems with Dr. Barrett’s reasoning. First off, it means universities should be concerned they not hold any activity that causes prolonged stress and thus physical harm.
College courses are one of the greatest sources of stress for their students. I guess we must cancel those in fears we are harming our students. That, or drastically change them to not be too challenging, or they might cause chronic stress.
Second, it seems she’d prefer to silence speech for fear of hurting people rather than tell the very few students (at least, let’s hope they’re very few) who might eventually experience physical harm to simply not go to such events. Why not simply say the event could be triggering to certain kinds of people? It’s certainly worse to promote censorship than it is to promote personal responsibility in avoiding triggering events.
And finally, she comes to the conclusion that we must concede to those who experience stress from speech, rather than suggest people learn how to cope with others’ opinions – even if they are vile.
The true irony here is in the fact that a psychologist wants to yield to an unhealthy cognitive behavior in young people rather than helping them develop resilience.
Being able to hear someone else’s opinion – no matter how hateful, bigoted, or so on – and not react with negative stress is healthy.
We want people to react this way. It means they take responsibility for their own emotions and therefore do not blame others for “causing” their self-permitted demise.
Studies show that being able to counteract or withstand the physiological effects of negative events in our lives leads to positive cognitive and emotional results; teaching people to be resilient means teaching them to be confident in themselves.
Is it academia’s prerogative to make students unsure of their identities and abilities?
The answer is hopefully a resounding and enthusiastic no, and thus ensues that we teach them how to be cognitively tough.
This does not mean their feelings are disregarded or unimportant, but it is important for them to learn that such feelings do not give them the right to silence others or prevent their peers from expanding their own minds.
Stress is related to perspective, which is why it’s very relative.
I do not get stressed out by the same things my wife does, nor does she get stressed out by the things that I do.
So trying to ban certain speakers means we cannot have any objective measurement by which to comply.
The other nightmare is how quickly colleges could turn into games of conservative or other non-favored groups saying that a left-wing speaker is triggering.
Why would we as a society want to create a generation of people who feel that their stressful reaction to opposing opinions is a valid response?
You don’t have to tell them that the way they’re reacting is wrong (because that won’t help), but you also don’t have to tell them that it’s right.
Focus on developing resilience, with it comes flexibility, self-discovery, and a hopeful outlook on life and oneself.
Clinical Therapy Technique
There’s an argument to be made that students who are triggered by provocative speakers should be exposed to them. There is a known clinical therapy technique known as exposure therapy, which is used for people who have phobias or panic and anxiety disorders.
Patients are ‘exposed’ to the thing they are fearful of, and overtime they are able to improve.
I don’t want students with actual diagnosed PTSD, or who have experienced extreme trauma, to be told they ‘just have to deal with it.’ I’m suggesting that those who aren’t able to cope with having the likes of Milo come to their campus need to learn to get through this.
They can know that having such negative responses is okay, but it is not healthy and cannot be permanent. They must overcome them.
Perhaps the university can act as a safe space that helps students work through their inability to cope with stress caused by opposing opinions, not a place that indulges such incapabilities.
Safe spaces that help people get through their stressful responses to certain ideologies are much more acceptable and beneficial than those that revel in them.
Ironically enough, Dr. Barrett admits the benefits of debating even with the most offensive. She tells of when she did a model debate on eugenics with an African-American faculty member, who was assigned to defend the practice against her.
As she puts it: “When you’re forced to engage a position you strongly disagree with, you learn something about the other perspective as well as your own. 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.”
Let me be clear that Dr. Barrett is not incorrect about the effects chronic stress can have on your brain and body. They’re very real. But, to be blunt, it is her conclusion that is flat out wrong.
We should not limit even the most absurd opinions from being expressed because of an indirect link to harm that might happen, depending on the person.
If university staff and faculty really care about their students, wouldn’t they be more concerned about teaching their students coping mechanisms rather than feeding into their delicate inflexibility?
Preparing them to make a difference means you have to let them hear difference.
* Josh Mason is a middle school language arts and social studies teacher, as well as the Managing Editor of the Ke Alaka’i, BYU-Hawaii’s news publication. He graduated from BYUH with a degree in psychology and music in February 2017. He does freelance journalism and blogging on sociopolitical issues, including economics, culture, and religion.
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