Words Were Never Violent

Since the beginning of summer, Harvard has been a war zone of free speech and political correctness culture. At least 10 students had their university acceptance rescinded for posting off-color memes, a faculty committee recommended doing away with final clubs, The Crimson had a free speech battle involving a range of opinions, and protesters called for the Charles Murray event to be cancelled. With all that has happened, we still haven’t settled the issue of free speech and expression.

I think we need to step back and remember a childish retort that’s strangely applicable to 2017: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” We all have heard this at least once in our life to serve as a reminder to pay no heed to someone’s unpleasant remark about you. Because really, words can’t physically harm you, right? Or can they?

Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, argues that words can hurt you, in a sense. They can make you feel sick and stressed, even shortening your life. To maintain “a culture of constant, casual brutality is toxic to the body.” This is the reason given for why we must inhibit speech that “bullies and torments.” Barrett further argues that “it’s reasonable, scientifically speaking, to not allow a provocateur and hatemonger like Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at your school. He is part of something noxious, a campaign of abuse.”

But how can Yiannopoulos contribute to “a campaign of abuse” when his speech doesn’t bear the same impact for each person? Some people may say that his speech harms them (although I believe they meant to say disturbed, not harmed), but his words, with which I don’t agree, don’t trouble me.

Admittedly, while sometimes browsing the weird part of the internet, I have read a few articles on traumatic subjects that made me felt sick to my stomach, but I’m not so psychologically scarred to see a need to ban such material. What is absolutely disgusting to me may not be to another. It is, after all, subjective.


Should there be no limit to free speech then? There is a small list of types of speech not covered by the First Amendment, one of which is harassment. In 1999, Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education declared that for something to be considered as harassment, it has to be “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victims are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.” So, if speech falls under that legal language of harassment, then it becomes unprotected speech.

Outside of harassment though, there are words and phrases that are protected but still offend people. Keep in mind that offensiveness doesn’t equate to bullying, violence, or some other variation, and when someone say something offensive, you don’t have to smile and accept it—just tell the person directly.

It was just last week that an acquaintance of mine told me that he took four classes this past summer. To that I sarcastically said that I would rather jump off a bridge. Someone else overheard and asked that I not say that, since he has known people who really did so. I apologized to him and realized that that innocuous phrase might be hurtful to people who know a victim of suicide. I was in no way intentionally bullying or tormenting him or trying to make a joke about suicide or mental illness, but this phrase offended him when it might not bother someone else.

So, if someone were to use “retarded” and it offended you, then tell them directly that their words hurt you and politely ask them to refrain from using it. That is more civil and builds a friendlier relationship than going through a third party—like your helicopter mom or administrators—to impose a campaign on everyone to not use the word. We are human and all of us will at some point unintentionally say something that is subjectively offensive. We can all learn to be civil by dealing with people directly instead of appealing to an authority.

By the same token, we need to build resilience to people’s thoughts, opinions, and even jokes because the world after graduation is much uglier than what we experience on campus. If we can’t entertain differing opinions (including ones like Murray’s that are deemed dangerous), can’t handle humor, and can’t even learn to stop caring about what others think of us, then the real world will be a rude awakening.

Natalie Bao Tram Le is a masters student at the Harvard Extension School and a member of Students For Liberty.


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