Does hateful speech on campus constitute an act of violence? Yes, said psychology Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett, arguing that it inflicts measurable neurological damage. Ethical leadership Professor Jonathan Haidt disagreed, viewing it more as a necessary evil that arms students for the outside world.
The two squared off Friday during the inaugural Rappaport Forum at Harvard Law School in a session titled “When Is Speech Violence? And Other Questions About Campus Speech.” Barrett, who teaches at Northeastern University, is author of “How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.” Haidt, a New York University social psychologist, co-authored “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.”
Moderator and HLS Professor Jeannie Suk Gersen began by asking what it means to think of speech as violence. The talk proved so vigorous that it was nearly an hour later that Haidt asked if Gersen had a second question.
The forum is the brainchild of Jerome Rappaport, a Law School graduate, developer, and philanthropist, and is intended to promote rigorous discussion of government and social issues. As a new One L in March 1946, Rappaport launched the Harvard Law Forum with a panel on war crimes in the midst of the Nuremberg trials. Over the years the forum has hosted various influential thinkers, among them John F. Kennedy, Fidel Castro, and Martin Luther King Jr. Now 92, Rappaport was present for the new forum’s launch, which HLS Dean John Manning introduced. Praising Rappaport’s ideal of thoughtful disagreement, Manning said, “A great university must be a place of open inquiry.”
Barrett pointed out that stress has a metabolic effect on the neurons, potentially leading to depression and even heart disease. Further, scientific evidence shows that verbal aggression causes stress similar to that triggered by physical aggression and some forms of sexual abuse. “This doesn’t mean you will suffer physical illness if somebody says something you don’t like,” she said. “What it does mean is that if you are chronically stressed, the words are likely to pile on and add to that. That is hard to accept as a culture because we believe in individual freedom.”