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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Stick and stones may break my bones …

Speech is violence, if it causes chronic stress, argues Lisa Feldman Barrett, a Northeastern psychology professor, in The New York Times. After all, chronic stressors “can make you sickalter your brain—even kill neurons —and shorten your life.”

Violent protests prevented right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking on the Berkeley campus. Photo: Ben Margot/AP

Advocating distressing ideas isn’t “violence,” counter social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, in The Atlantic.

Feldman Barrett concedes that periodic bouts of stress, including “encountering an odious idea in a university lecture,” does no harm and can be “educational.” However, “long stretches of simmering stress” can take a physical toll.

Berkeley students who prevented Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking were justified, she concludes. A “provocateur and hatemonger,” he is “part of something noxious, a campaign of abuse.”

Haidt and Lukianoff wonder how a speech — two hours at most — could cause chronic stress.

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.  . . . Feldman Barrett’s argument only makes sense if Yiannopoulos’s speech is interpreted as one brief episode in a long stretch of “simmering stress” on campus. . . .

Is it plausible that “some of the country’s most progressive schools, such as Berkeley, Middlebury College, and Evergreen State College,” are “brutal and toxic environments for members of various identity groups?” they ask. “Or has a set of new ideas on campus taught students to see oppression and violence wherever they look?”

In a 2015 Atlantic article, Haidt and Lukianoff warned that “trigger warnings, safe spaces, and microaggression training” would make students feel less “safe.” Now they cite a new book by social psychologist Jean Twenge, iGen (for “internet generation”), in which she analyzes datasets that track the mental health of teenagers and college students. “As soon as the data includes iGen—those born after roughly 1994—the rates of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and suicide spike upward,” they write.

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.

Haidt and Lukianoff quote Van Jones’ response to a question about how progressive students should react to ideologically offensive speakers. Jones said:

I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that’s the whole point of the gym. This is the gym.

The idea that speech is violence “tells the members of a generation already beset by anxiety and depression that the world is a far more violent and threatening place than it really is,” write Haidt and Lukianoff. It helps justify political violence, such as the riot in which “people were punched, beaten, and pepper sprayed by masked protesters.” It’s dangerous.Telling people they’re being traumatized is traumatizing, writes Jesse Singal in New York magazine.

Claremont McKenna protestors prevented Heather Mac Donald, author of The War on Cops, from speaking.

He cites an an Australian study, in which college students were told, at random, that they were good or bad at coping with stress before watching a disturbing ten-minute video of a car wreck. Those told they were bad at coping with stress were far more distressed than those told they were “good copers.”

Claremont McKenna suspended several students who prevented Heather Mac Donald from speaking, reports Conor Friedersdorf. Mac Donald, a Manhattan Institute scholar, “is most controversial for arguing that aggressive policing tactics pioneered by the NYPD in the 1990s saved thousands of black lives by reducing crime––and that  protest movements like Black Lives Matter are part of a ‘war on cops’ that makes everyone, especially cops and black men, less safe.”

Trent Bernard taught international economics at Johns Hopkins for six years, until he told a Pakistani terrorist joke in class. He was suspended before the investigation started.

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