Discover more from Random Minds by Katherine Brodsky
Word Misappropriation: VIOLENCE
A verbal series. Part 4.
[Part of an on-going series on word misappropriation]
Tanks rolling over people, guns blazing, and drunken fist-fights are all rather obvious examples of violence. The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes violence as “the use of physical force so as to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy.”
But, can words be violence? Certainly, sometimes the right combination of words can feel like a sucker-punch. But there’s no need to rush to the hospital just yet. While there’s evidence that some emotionally hurtful verbiage can cause stress in the body, thereby, killing some neurons, your nervous system is generally designed to withstand the occasional bout of stress—whether physical or of the verbal variety.
Language certainly has the power to wound, or to harm an individual, but much of it has to do with what goes on in the mind of the receiver. What if speech is understood as violence but not intended as such? Does intent not matter? What if the utterer of speech means something as kindness but is perceived by the receiver as hurtful due to their own mind playing tricks on them because of insecurity or a misunderstanding?
Do we allow the individual to interpret what it is that is hurtful for them independent of any intent? Meanwhile, a fist to the gut or a slap to the face leaves little question as to whether it was indeed an act of violence.
Let’s take this a step further: If one goes to a white supremacy rally but does not carry out any actions, is that violence? Some may assume that it is. Is betraying a business partner an act of violence? Is screaming profanities at another person violence?
So, let’s say we define violence as the intent to inflict pain. Does verbal abuse then become an act of violence?
Does it really matter if we allow acts of emotional violence to be defined as “violence”? This may seem irrelevant at first glance, but there are profound consequences for definitions. Words matter, especially within our judicial system.
If we stretch the boundaries of the definition, who’s to say that a case cannot be presented in the court of law where one would have to stand trial for causing emotional harm to someone through the use of language?
And if words are violence, does it then not justify inflicting physical violence on someone else in retaliation?
We've seen examples of this enacted in the real world. How often do we hear of protests against certain “controversial” speakers turn to violence? People get beaten, punched and pepper sprayed. In their minds, it’s justified. They are merely defending themselves against the violence of words.
Some even see silence as an act of violence. Of course, what they are really insisting on is compelled speech. But careful: Not the wrong kind of speech. Whatever that might be. Failing to display public affirmation signals complicity.
If we define violence as purely a physical act, then speech is never violence. But if we extend that definition to words, how far do we take it? How do we decide what’s violent and what’s not? And how do we get around the fact that “violence” in an emotional context may mean different things to different people?
PS. It’s important to note that when we’re talking about words and speech, we aren’t referring to things like threats, or incitement—things that are linked to actual physical violence and are excepted from the First Amendment.