The recent New York Times Sunday Review outdid itself in anti-conservative wackiness. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, offered some kooky junk science in the name of banning “offensive” right-wingers like Milo Yiannopoulos from campus in “When Is Speech Violence?” In the same section, liberal journalist Joshua Green took on the “hallucinatory” right-wing media for the sin of not obsessing over Russia, in “The World Through Breitbart-Vision.”
Imagine that a bully threatens to punch you in the face. A week later, he walks up to you and breaks your nose with his fist. Which is more harmful: the punch or the threat?
The answer might seem obvious: Physical violence is physically damaging; verbal statements aren’t. “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
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.
The junk science followed:
Your body also contains little packets of genetic material that sit on the ends of your chromosomes. They’re called telomeres. Each time your cells divide, their telomeres get a little shorter, and when they become too short, you die. This is normal aging. But guess what else shrinks your telomeres? Chronic stress.
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?
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.”
The scientific findings I described above provide empirical guidance for which kinds of controversial speech should and shouldn’t be acceptable on campus and in civil society. In short, the answer depends on whether the speech is abusive or merely offensive.
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.
That’s why it’s reasonable, scientifically speaking, not to allow a provocateur and hatemonger like Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at your school. 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.
Or....you could maybe just not go hear him speak, without violating the First Amendment as well
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In the same section, liberal journalist Joshua Green took on the “hallucinatory” right-wing media for the sin of not obsessing over Russia, in “The World Through Breitbart-Vision.” The text box: “The right’s reaction to news can feel like a mass hallucination.”
The revelation that Donald Trump’s son, son-in-law and campaign manager met with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer promising information that would “incriminate” Hillary Clinton was a true bombshell in an era when we have become almost inured to them. Here was proof that members of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign had, at the very least, been eager to collude with Russia to influence the 2016 election.
No one could gainsay the facts: Mr. Trump’s own son published them on Twitter.
As recently as five or 10 years ago, every major news outlet would have treated this set of facts as front-page news and a dire threat to Mr. Trump’s presidency. The conservative press and Republican voters might disagree on certain particulars or points of emphasis. But their view of reality -- of what happened and its significance -- would have largely comported with that of the mainstream. You’d have had to travel to the political fringe of right-wing talk radio, the Drudge Report and dissident publications like Breitbart News to find an alternative viewpoint that rejected this basic story line.
Not anymore. Look to the right now and you’re apt to find an alternative reality in which the same set of facts is rearranged to compose an entirely different narrative. On Fox News, host Lou Dobbs offered a representative example on Thursday night, when he described the Donald Trump Jr. email story, with wild-eyed fervor, like this: “This is about a full-on assault by the left, the Democratic Party, to absolutely carry out a coup d’état against President Trump aided by the left-wing media.”
Mr. Dobbs isn’t some wacky outlier, but rather an example of how over the last several years the conservative underworld has swallowed up and subsumed more established right-leaning outlets such as Fox News. The Breitbart mind-set -- pugnacious, besieged, paranoid and determined to impose its own framework on current events regardless of facts -- has moved from the right-wing fringe to the center of Republican politics.
Besides shifting the “fringe” right to encompass talk radio and the right-leaning news aggregator the Drudge Report, Green casually suggests Trump’s fans are mindless zombies:
Another argument holds that Mr. Trump’s efforts to discredit mainstream outlets, echoed by the right-wing media, have stripped his followers of their ability to distinguish what’s real from what isn’t.
Green forwarded these survey figures without suggesting why Republicans may not be fans of college culture at present (hint: see above article that supports the banning of some conservative speakers from campus):
One reason that an alternative view of reality has taken such deep root among Republicans is that they seem to be focusing more on the broader culture. Last week a new Pew Research Center poll showed that a majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents now believes that colleges and universities -- the flash point of our current culture wars -- have a negative effect on the country. This number is up sharply from the 45 percent who agreed with this same statement last year.
As American politics has become more polarized and tribal, it’s gotten harder to shake voters from their partisan loyalties. At least so far, the news that Donald Trump Jr. was prepared to accept Russian help to subvert a United States election doesn’t appear to have changed this state of affairs. If you’re not a Republican, watching Republicans react to the news can feel a bit like witnessing a mass hallucination. Even more so when some emissary from the alternate Republican universe like Kellyanne Conway teleports onto CNN or another mainstream outlet to state her case.
But of course the conservative ranks have always included principled NeverTrumpers, whose resistance to the Republican drift has been mostly ignored by the rank and file. Don Jr.’s travails will be a good test of the resiliency of the new Republican worldview. If special counsel Robert Mueller finds evidence of Russian collusion, it will be followed by a bigger test measuring just what it takes to snap out of a mass hallucination.