Are Words Violence?

Sarah Rose

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

This is a timely and important question. I've thought about words as violence ever since reading article version of The Coddling of the American Mind a few years ago. Since then I've dug deeper into, books, and op-eds, and linguistic theory. There seems to be no satisfying conclusion to this problem, because it's a problem of words. And language is inherently contextual. It is less solid and more liquid. It is beautiful, but taking any word out of context immediately removes some of its meaning. When I first thought about the question, "are words violence?" my reaction was no. The definition of violence is: "behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something." Another, less commonly used definition is "strength of emotion or an unpleasant or destructive natural force."

So maybe, if we collectively define violence as only physical, words can never be violent. But, if we understand that violence isn't always physical, that humans can cause harm to each other in many other ways, then it seems reasonable to contend that speech can be violence. Context is important, as is intention, although the former is easier to understand than the later. Nobody knows anyone else's intention especially when it comes to language. So, the best conclusion I've come to is this: if violence is defined as intentionally causing harm, then words are sometimes violence. On paper, this seems like a good answer, but it may not be very useful in practice.

In 2017, a New York Times op-ed was published, written by psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett. She argued that long-term stress can inflict serious damage on a body and that hateful speech can be a cause of long-term stress. When speech ceases to be offensive and turns abusive, she writes, is when it turns violent. In theory, this makes perfect sense but in practice, it causes some problems. Who gets to decide what is offensive vs. what is abusive? Bullying usually lies somewhere on the offensive to abusive spectrum, but every individual will arguably interpret language different or have a unique capacity to deal with hateful speech, which is why regulating speech, even abusive speech, is difficult and dangerous.

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, authors of The Coddling of the American Mind (the article and the book) responded to Barrett's op-ed in a predictable way: by stating that conflating language with violence is a logical fallacy; that the culture of "safetyism" is making children and teenagers more fragile and less resilient, and that the best way to inhibit free speech is to shut down anything and everything that might possibly be construed as violent or offensive. The problem with the Haidt-Lukianoff response is that they presume the definition of violence to be unilaterally related to physical harm.

Language is not static. It is shape-shifting and constantly changing to fit the needs of speakers, to keep up with changing technologies and cultural landscapes, and to encompass the vastly different experiences of diverse and changing people. The Linguistic Society states that, "no two people have had exactly the same language experience. We all know a slightly different set of words and constructions, depending on our age, job, education level, region of the country, and so on. We pick up new words and phrases from all the different people we talk with, and these combine to make something new and unlike any other person's particular way of speaking. At the same time, various groups in society use language as a way of marking their group identity; showing who is and isn't a member of the group."

The group identities of Haidt, Lukianoff, and Barrett are all different because they are different people. Barrett's propensity to widen the definition of violence to encompass words and the physical/mental/emotional implications of words says something about her; her background/upbringing, her education, her experiences. Much of her research has centered around emotions and cultures, and she has concluded that emotions are not triggered so much as created. Our emotions develop as a combination of brain chemistry, environment, and culture. Haidt and Lukianoff, on the other hand, resisted the widening of the term "violence," a stance born of their own background/upbringing, education, and experiences.

One definition of violence is not inherently right or better than the other. Language does not play that game. The implications of defining speech as violence though, go far deeper than language, written, verbal or otherwise, because violence is largely punished, often in profound and lasting ways. But what punishment is there for speech? And how far does that punishment go? Is the speaker, the intended recipient, or an objective third party responsible for deciding whether speech is violent?

For those who hold positions of power or privilege, language may never feel violent. But for others, who have different experiences, speech could very well feel violent. And experiencing language as violence is possible because, as Dr. Ludwig Wittgenstein said, "usage has no sharp boundary." The only way to really understand the meaning of a word is to examine the context in which it is used and to consider the intentions of the speaker.

Speech, I think, can be understood as violence because speech is not a rigid, fixed thing. Words cannot cause bruises (though they can affect one's physical health), but words can break a spirit. They can cause grief, anxiety, hopelessness, etc. Words matter, and just because the effects of words aren't immediately visible doesn't make them any less potent. Free speech is crucial, yes, but understanding that language is nuanced and powerful is crucial, too. Speech can be violent, but should not be policed. Instead of focusing on the degree or severity of speech as violence, it may be more worthwhile to focus on understanding the complexity and implications of language. It might be more worthwhile to teach young people not to cry wolf whenever their feelings are hurt, but to understand the difference between being harmed or simply being offended. And finally, it might be worthwhile to foster open-mindedness and empathy in ourselves and in others. That way, less violence of any kind will have air to breathe.


Sarah Rose

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