Words, violence, and the mind-body problem

Last week the New York Times published an opinion piece that argued that some kinds of speech constitute physical violence. The argument is straight-forward, and can be spelled out in three steps.

Step 1
Hearing words can cause physical reactions in the body and brain. If someone you have a crush on tells you that they love you, your heart rate may increase, your blood vessels may dilate, and you’ll get a burst of dopamine that feels very exciting. If you get sudden news that a close relative has died, it will cause dramatic physical and chemical changes that can be felt as anxiety, light-headedness, and maybe even fear. So speech can have a clear physical impact on your body.
Step 2
If the stress caused by hearing speech is extreme or prolonged enough, it can cause permanent damage to the body. Therefore, it is possible, under some circumstances, for speech to do long-term physical harm.
Step 3.
Therefore, when someone’s speech causes you physical harm it can be seen as physical violence in the same way that someone hitting you in the face is violence, even though the types of physical harm are very different.

It’s a dumb argument; regrettably, most of the criticisms I’ve seen of it are equally dumb. There is a much deeper conversation that we could be having about this topic, if we can get past shallow partisan bickering.

Doing violence to the word violence

The biggest and most obvious flaw in this argument is in Step 3.

Sure, speech can cause physical harm, in all the ways the article describes. But is the fact that harm has been caused sufficient for it to be considered “violence”?

Can a tornado do violence to a tree? Some people use the word that way; but for many people that use is only metaphorical. The most common use of the word “violence” implies intent: I am violent when I punch you in the face, but not when I trip and accidentally fall on you.

Similarly, the most common uses of the word “violence” imply that the harm being done is swift and abrupt. Is it appropriate to call it “violence” if I kill someone by giving them a slow-acting poison? Certainly poisoning someone causes physical harm; but there are those who would consider it stretching the normal use of the term to call it an act of “violence”.

At best it’s a gray area; at worst it’s a deliberately strained use of the word. One could (metaphorically) say it’s doing violence to the normal use of the word “violence”.

Finally, one key factor in “violence” is lack of consent. Some people refer to boxing as “violent” sport, even though boxers partake in the sport voluntarily; however, it is uncommon to hear it said that one boxer was committing an “act of violence” against the other during the normal course of boxing. Abrupt harm is being caused, but it is a situation where both people consent. It’s unusual for acts to be labelled as “violence” in these situations.

The New York Times article says: “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.”

Even if we accept that listening to Milo speak might cause some listeners physical harm, this argument is flat-out wrong because going to listen to him speak is strictly voluntary. If you fear that being exposed to his words will harm you, then you simply don’t have to go. If you choose to go anyway, then you have given consent: you are now stepping into the ring, with your boxing gloves on.

Rhetorical games and manipulation

Personally, I think it’s cool and interesting to point out that words can have physical impact on the body… for reasons I’ll talk about more below.

But first let’s ask: why does the writer think it is important to draw attention to the fact that speech can cause physical harm? More specifically, why is the writer trying to place certain types of speech into the “violence” box, where it sits along-side fist-fights and gunshots?

They might be using it as a political tactic: by getting certain types of speech classified as “violence”, they can then pursue criminalizing it and justify doling out punishments to people who say things that, in their judgment, caused them a physically debilitating amount of stress.

If that is their goal, it is sure to backfire. For one thing, it’s almost impossible to demonstrate the supposed “physical harm” you’ve endured as the result of any specific speech act you’ve heard. You won’t be able to point to a little dark spot in a scan of your brain, or a segment of worn out tissue in your heart valve, and say “this was caused by listening to a speech by Milo!” (or whatever).

For another thing, an article in The Atlantic called “Why it’s a bad idea to tell students words are violence” points out that when you place verbal acts in the same category as punching, kicking, and shooting people, it has the side-effect of implying that punching, kicking and shooting people is a valid proportional response to a verbal attack.

Wouldn’t it be a shame if, in your idealistic zeal to get words classified as physical violence, you end up making people feel more justified in using physical violence in response to words they don’t like?

Taking a moment to think more deeply

The research I did as an undergraduate focused on the biological underpinnings of social interaction, and in that research I enjoyed making a similar type of claim: when we rely on our social relationships to regulate our emotions, using our friends and loved ones to comfort us when we are stressed out and stimulate us when we are bored, this social dependency is an actual chemical dependency. It is an addiction in the same physical sense as heroin addiction, and the hurt that you feel when you miss your loved one is a symptom of an actual chemical withdrawal.

The reason this is true is that the way that your mind and body mediate feelings of social comfort and anxiety is through the use of neurochemicals that your body produces that have the same structure and function as opium and heroin. They are called “endogenous opiates” or “opioids” because they act on the same receptors in the brain as opium.

When you around a person you love, some of the reason you feel good is literally because your body is pumping this chemical into your system. The reason you feel bad when you miss them is that your body has stopped pushing the nice drugs into your system, and you are going through withdrawal.

My motivation for highlighting this was an academic and philosophical one: I wanted to draw attention to the fact that sociology and biology are not completely independent disciplines, because mechanisms studied by one impact behaviors observed by the other. I wanted to critique the rational, decision-theory and game-theory based sociological theories that were popular in the study of small-group dynamics at the time, by talking about a theory of an underlying mechanism for social behavior that was decidedly not rational.

And most of all, I wanted to delve into what philosophers call The Mind-Body Problem, and start a conversation about the causal links that connect the physical and emotional world.

On some level I was being subversive, because I was rejecting the dualism of “mental life” and “physical body” completely. (I’ve written about some of the negative reaction I got in academia in another article.)

This same kind of critique could have been opened up by a discussion of this article. Right now, both supporters and detractors of the article are deeply entrenched in the assumption of Mind-Body dualism. Detractors of the article say words are words, and are obviously not physical because they belong in the Realm of Mind. Supporters say words are not just mental, they are physical and impact the Body.

Both are wrong… because the division between “mental” and “physical” is artificial and misguided: all mental things are physical.

Wouldn’t it be awesome if that New York Times op-ed would lead to that kind of discussion?

Alas, it was not to be.

Most criticism of the New York Times piece has been wildly over-dramatic and has completely mis-represented the article. There was plenty of hand-wringing hyperbole, such as essays claiming that the NYT piece argues “speech that hurts one’s feelings” is equivalent to physical violence. (This is blatantly wrong: the article goes through great pains to point out not all anxiety is “physical harm” and not all speech you dislike is violence.) It is just typical partisan positioning, misrepresenting the other side in order to make them seem frivolous or crazy.

Such a shame.

But maybe now you, dear reader, can take a moment and get something more out of this topic than the rest of the crowd out there.

Take a moment to think about the fact that all speech is a physical act, that has physical consequences. Think about the fact that all of your thoughts and feelings are actually physical phenomena.

Think about the fact that your pheromones can impact the feelings of others… which means they are physically altering other people without you even knowing about it, and without them giving their consent. Does that have policy implications? Does that have moral implications?

Or does it just mean that arguments about what is or is not “physical” are looking in the wrong place?

It’s something to think about.



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  1. Stephen Self says:

    Some astute observing of semantics here! I congratulate you on that. While I agree with the main thrust of your comments on the term violence, I think the boxing example may be illustrative of the fundamental role one’s own perspective plays in willingness to deploy the word violence as an apt cover term for any given physical or even verbal event. An ardent supporter of the sport will probably neither dub boxing violent nor certainly say that any given moment during a match consisted of one boxer perpetrating an “act of violence” against another. A die-hard opponent and critic of boxing, however, might very likely do both. As a teenager in Spain, I went to several bull fights. At one, I observed that someone had spray-painted graffiti on the side of the arena. It said: Bull-fighting is neither art nor culture, it’s torture. Was the writer of that graffito being metaphorical with the word torture or did he or she truly believe that those engaged in the fights did so for the sole purpose of inflicting harm and enjoying it, while the bulls were conscious enough of the violation to feel “tortured”? When one person’s sport can be another’s torture, we see the high degree to which perspective plays a determining role in even the denotative meanings of words. I think the true difference between verbal and physical violence is that the harm inflicted by words requires a kind of consent to be harmed, but not so physical acts. When I punch you hard, you will likely be harmed to some degree, whether or not you will yourself to be. And no amounting of thinking differently about it can do away with the very real physical symptoms of and physiological responses to having been hit. While the same physiological responses can occur to verbal acts of “violence” as to physical ones (quickened pulse, pupil dilation, capillary response, etc.), to truly feel harm from a verbal “attack,” the listener must not only be a co-speaker with the attacker of the same language and member of the same speech community, he or she must also agree that the words of the attack hold power within that community and that that power may be exerted over the victim who is then cast into the role of a victim. If, however, the victims reclaim the words of attack and use them in-group style as playfully transgressive self-designations, much of their sting when falling from the mouths of those outside of the group is defused. Also, as a history of certain kinds of words of abuse and attack from one community to another builds up over time, the mere knowledge and expectation of them as a pat part of one community’s customary abuse of another makes them rote and no longer novel in a way that further lessens their ability to cause real psychological and physiological damage. There is an important element of consent when it comes to language, and victimized communities need not continue to give their consent to verbal victimization. I’d also love to hear more about your mind-body research. It sounds fascinating.

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