Words Can Hurt, But That Cannot Excuse Restrictions on Free Expression

The Free Speech Cafe in Moffitt Libra...
The Free Speech Cafe in Moffitt Library at the University of California, Berkeley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

"Words hurt." Yes, I suppose that is true. Words can indeed hurt one's feelings. This is especially true for children who have not yet developed the sort of coping skills we expect from most adults. It is easy to imagine a parent helping a young child realize that he or she does not need to care so much what the inconsiderate jerk on the playground thinks. This is easier said than done, of course, as this notion will initially be unfamiliar. But as the child gradually learns to cope with distress, he or she typically begins to understand that one cannot control how others behave, that one's sense of self need not be based on the opinions of others, and that some insults should be dismissed without becoming overly invested in them. These lessons do not mean that the youth never experiences hurt feelings in response to the words of others; they mean that the sting of words is lessened and that the youth is better equipped to cope with hurt feelings.

Unfortunately, these developmental tasks are not always accomplished in successful ways. Some children appear to be born with more sensitive temperaments. They experience the pain of hurt feelings more frequently and intensely than many of their peers, and this may make the process of learning effective coping skills far more difficult. Other children are subjected to levels of torment that deserve to be characterized as bullying and which would prove challenging to most children. This can also be expected to complicate the process of acquiring coping skills.

Not surprisingly, adults differ considerably in their sensitivity to the words of others, the ease with which their feelings are hurt, the intensity of their reactions to hurt feelings, and their ability to cope with the distress of hurt feelings. We all know at least one person who we might describe as overly sensitive (i.e., someone who seems to be perpetually offended) and another we might describe as thick-skinned and unflappable. The evidence of variability is all around us, especially on the Internet.

Personally, I am rarely phased by harsh words from a complete stranger on the Internet. I am regularly insulted and periodically threatened, and when this happens, I rarely put more stock in these expressions than I do when I am verbally accosted by someone I encounter in a mental health treatment facility. I rarely take the insults personally, respond to them defensively, or give them a second thought.

The thing is, I also recognize that not everyone reacts this way. Some adults do regularly experience hurt feelings based on what strangers say to them on the Internet. Just because I believe that we are primarily responsible for our own feelings does not mean that I do not experience empathy for those who are far more distressed by it than I am. And so, I am not prepared to go quite as far as Dr. Jerry Coyne (Why Evolution is True) seems to when he says:

“Words hurt” is the mantra of the new suppress-free-speech movement. And yes, words can hurt feelings, but so what? They also make people think.

While I understand and agree with his point, the "so what" part comes across as a bit callous in this context. I wish those who regularly experience emotional pain in response to the words of others did not experience this sort of pain. I sincerely hope that they develop the sort of distress tolerance and other healthy coping skills that can reduce this pain. I recognize that this is not an easy task, and I hope that they can find a competent mental health professional to assist them in this process. I think they would be much happier if they were able to do this.

What I will not support are the efforts to restrict the free expression of others in order to protect one's feelings. And here, I am in complete agreement with Dr. Coyne when he says:

My view has always been that of the U.S. government itself: that speech cannot be suppressed so long as it doesn’t try to incite immediate violence.
I have repeatedly shared my concern over what he labels as the "anti-free-speech trend" coming from the left, and I will continue to do so as long as this disturbing trend persists. The fact that words can hurt some people in some situations is not a sufficient reason to restrict them.