A semantic analysis and follow-up to my article, “Words Themselves Are Not Violence — Only Physical Acts of Aggression Are.”
Arguing In Favour that Words Can Be Violent Is a Slippery Slope.
At the outset, we need to use words to describe what other words mean. If a particular word is considered to be violent, what does that say about the other words used to define what that so-called violent word means?
Earlier this year in June, I published, Words Themselves Are Not Violence — Only Physical Acts of Aggression Are. Looking back at that article, I now feel like it is lacking certain solid foundations — more depth — that I hope to make more clear in this submission.
Let’s start with the idea that a single word cannot be violent.
There is a subtle irony that I am using words to explain how I understand this challenging situation. I intend to use my words to persuade you, or to at least consider, that no word in and of itself can be violent. The simple fact that the meaning of words changes over time for various reasons is an indication of what’s happening at this moment. Some people claim that words can be violent. I believe this is something of a temporary ignorance and misunderstanding of semantics, linguistics, and the exercise of philosophy — the latter being the ability to think about thinking.
What are my words doing on the screen that you are reading?
Or should I say, these words you are reading long after I have written them, do not have a natural consciousness of their own? The words you see with your eyes that your brain follows along from left to right to create sentences that you comprehend are not acting upon you violently. They cannot. Words are signs or symbols used to represent what we understand as language, and in this case, English.
What if, for example, I wrote the above header in another language that you don’t know?
In German: Was machen meine Worte auf dem Bildschirm, den Sie lesen?
In Chinese: 我的話在你正在閱讀的屏幕上做什麼？
If you don’t know German, you may have guessed what one or two of the words mean. But if you’re like me and don’t understand Chinese, you also won’t be able to understand the traditional Chinese characters, Hanzi. Thus, if you can’t understand the words in German, and you can’t understand Chinese characters, how can any of the words in the above two translations be violent?
Let’s use another example, the word, “Elemental.” I chose that word at random, but not without reason. Perhaps sharing my reasons would only complicate matters. Or would sharing my reasons for choosing the word, “Elemental” make you feel that the word is violent? Can the word, “Elemental” be violent? How can it be, or how can it demonstrate violence? What does the word “elemental” need to do to be considered violent?
Honestly, I do not have an affirmative answer to any of my questions that would substantiate a case for words being violent. Or at least, I do not have an answer that, in my opinion, would work in reality. “Elemental” would have to physically harm someone. How does a word, a concept, a symbolic description in language physically harm someone? This brings me to what might be the root of this issue: the definition of the noun, “Violence” and the adjective or qualifier, “Violent.”
Definition of the Noun, “Violence.”
(Definitions from Dictionary.com)
- swift and intense force: the violence of a storm.
- rough or injurious physical force, action, or treatment: to die by violence.
- an unjust or unwarranted exertion of force or power, as against rights or laws: to take over a government by violence.
- a violent act or proceeding.
- rough or immoderate vehemence, as of feeling or language: the violence of his hatred.
- damage through distortion or unwarranted alteration: to do editorial violence to a text.
In each definition above, violence is an action, physical or perceived.
Violence as a word is the description of something that happens in the world.
In the 5th and 6th examples, we see how violence is used to qualify the intensity of an emotion or an action. “The violence of his hatred” may or may not lead to that person taking out their hatred on another person in a way we might call “physical violence.”
In the case of “as of feeling or language,” one can feel violent emotions brewing within themselves just as you can sense someone else’s violent hatred, or worst-case scenario, experience their physical violence against your person. Doing “editorial violence to a text” means that the editor held nothing back in how brutal or forceful they were in the process of editing the text based on what they deemed incorrect or problematic.
Definition of the Adjective, “Violent.”
- acting with or characterized by uncontrolled, strong, rough force: a violent earthquake.
- caused by injurious or destructive force: a violent death.
- intense in force, effect, etc.; severe; extreme: violent pain; violent cold.
- roughly or immoderately vehement or ardent: violent passions.
- furious in impetuosity, energy, etc.: violent haste.
- of, relating to, or constituting a distortion of meaning or fact.
I feel confident that most of what I shared about the noun, “Violence” also applies to the adjective. The sixth definition is somewhat confusing — as things can be in language when we are using a system to explain the system. We are using words to define and explain other words. It’s worth going down this path for a moment to offer another reason why I believe that a word — in and of itself — cannot be violent.
What Is a Word?
A word is a label, a definition, a name, or a symbol that represents an abstract, artificial construction of the human mind to communicate through writing and speech. For example, what is a label? A label could be a name, a word, or something you attach to a package to indicate what’s in the package or even a mailing label. And what’s a name? A name is a label for a person, animal, thing, or an idea, for example, the name of a philosophy like ‘Existentialism.’
What Is Violence?
As I understand it from the definitions above, violence is a word that describes an action that is generally considered swift, intense, injurious, forceful, deadly, rough, uncontrolled, acting against something or someone, vehement, unwarranted, and so on.
Here we see that we need words to describe an act of violence. Words are concepts — intellectual constructions that humans have developed as part of their unique cognitive abilities. If I think a violent thought towards someone, can that have a violent effect upon that person? Will they physically bleed if I think about beating them up? Not of my accord if I don’t take any physical action based on my thoughts. This leads me to the next logical question.
Can words lead to violence?
Yes, of course, they can. But again, the word is not violent in and of itself. We can use words to communicate our intention to change hearts and minds for the common good — or for terrible deeds. We can use words to get people excited, hopeful, and joyful —but for the person getting excited, they must understand the intention of the other person’s words and then choose to have an emotional response (or a reaction) to participate in said excitement. Furthermore, we can also use words to manipulate, suppress, control, and indoctrinate. But this is never the result of a single word. The word does not compel action.
In any situation, several factors come into play like environment, the people involved, the reason for the gathering, and how often a gathering has happened. When it comes to the language and words used, a situation like indoctrination, for example, doesn’t happen with a few words. It’s a manipulative practice that takes time, patience, and a formula to succeed. Could we label something like indoctrination a violent act? Yes, and this example best relates to the 6th definition for violent: relating to, or constituting a distortion of meaning or fact. But again, we are using a word to label the action of indoctrination as violent because the intention of the indoctrinator is to have power over another person for their control.
Derogatory language, racial and prejudicial slurs.
Words used to express prejudice or hatred to another person, even when used in a way that is perceived as violent or threatening, are still words. The words themselves are not violent. The person saying them might be visibly expressing physical gestures, raising their voice, or using a tone of voice that indicates the level of their prejudice and hatred. But again, the words themselves are not violent. The person is being aggressive, forceful, or violent in their behaviour and using words that mirror and describe the feelings, beliefs, and possible intentions.
We cannot argue that thinking certain words causes someone to be violent, either. We use words to formulate our thoughts and ideas into linguistic and syntactic constructions called speech (or sentences) to communicate with others so that they understand our intentions.
If I say, “I am going to kill you,” while sitting motionless in my chair, and if my threat is perceived as serious, you would be right to be afraid and to leave for your own safety. But uttering those words — one by one — is not in and of itself violent at the level of the words. I would have to act on those words, meaning I would have to manifest a physical action that purposefully demonstrates the meaning of the words expressed in that sentence.
If I had instead said, “I am going to kiss you,” while sitting motionless in my chair, does that mean I have kissed you with my words? In other words, saying what I’m going to do is not the same as doing it.
The distinction between what we feel responding to a situation and words.
Emotions are signals telling us to pay attention to what’s happening inside ourselves or in the outside environment. Emotions are not words. We can use words to describe our emotions, labelling them and giving them specific names like happiness or sadness. Have you ever been sad or depressed and someone said to you, “Smile, you should just be happy”? Did their words make you happy? Most likely, they had no effect on your level of happiness. You are a master of your thoughts and how you get to choose how to respond to what anyone says to you.
In “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt discuss the situation happening across colleges in the United States (and also happening at Canadian Universities) which has led to the cancelling of individuals for their words, opinions, or even speaking about a subject on the curriculum:
“A culture that allows the concept of “safety” to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger is a culture that encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy.”
This is a slippery slope: to equate words as having inherent violence results in perceiving ideas, individuals (or professors in this context) as being either safe or physically threatening and dangerous. At this extreme end, there is no possibility for discourse.
Words Are Not Violent.
It is possible that I am missing something from my argument. Note that I have tried to keep this article limited to and focused on language, meaning, and semantics. It’s another, much larger discussion, to consider morality, politics, and ideologies—something that someone else may be better equipped to deal with (see Lukianoff and Haidt, above).
It is, however, my firm belief based on what I think is clear and logical reasoning that words are in and of themselves not violent. That would mean a word — an intellectual construct that manifests in thought, in print, or by voice — has a mind of its own. That would mean that a word has consciousness and can act of its accord — in this sense, violently towards someone.
To put it another way: you can defend yourself with words against other words. And to be even more pedantic for the sake of clarity, ‘defend’ in this context means to support your argument or position against someone else’s.
Violence is an action in some form, be that in the types of thoughts one has (aggressive, intense, vehement), or in the kind of physical motions that one puts into action. Violence may manifest as a threat-based reaction in the form of a fight in self-defence — a self-preservation mechanism that happens via the oldest part of our brain, the amygdala—but in response to being violently acted upon.
The more self-aware and mindful that we are, the more we will be aware of being in our thinking brain, the prefrontal cortex. This helps us to better manage knee-jerk reactions that are meant to protect us, especially when the threat is social and not existential.
We have seen how violent people can become in a heated argument that has nothing to do with their existential safety. In these situations, the less self-aware that someone is, and the less someone can think about thinking, the less likely they will be able to manage their violent thoughts and tendencies, which may lead to acts of violence.
When violence happens, it is because a person or people committed violent acts. Words cannot act or think for themselves. Thus, words are not violent — people are.
If you expect that words are violent you are not only giving away your own power—your sovereignty—you are supporting a false belief that ‘a label, a definition, a name, or a symbol that represents an abstract, artificial construction of the human mind to communicate through writing and speech’ has a mind of its own.
A few final words…
I’m not arguing for or against free speech in this article, although I do agree that the right to speak freely doesn’t preclude the speaker from legal consequences. And while it may look on the surface that what someone says leading to damaging or violent consequences equates to “words being violent,” it is the intention of the speaker — or the group and their corresponding actions and resultant consequences — that are violent in the outcome.
For a deeper discussion on the conceptions of free speech, see “Americans, Don’t Envy European Speech Codes!” by Jacob Mchangama.
Where You Stand Program
A 13-Week Personal Evolution Group Coaching Program Starting Monday, January 17, 2022.
This 13-week Personal Evolution Program is designed to help you get clarity, focus, direction, and grounding. Each week, you will work through a single process to master a new life skill. For example, you will discover your core emotions, align with your core values, refine your beliefs, audit your internal and external environments, and craft a purpose statement to guide you in living with integrity as a Humane Thought Leader.