Verbal violence

Of course words can be violent.

It feels a bit odd to be arguing this, and it feels obvious to me now but certainly wouldn’t have in the past. A view on that statement is obviously informed by a lot of other things, and it’s something people might change their minds about over time.

But it’s come up again and I’m prompted to get some thoughts down. For a start, a friend teaches “nonviolent communication” and that pretty much necessitates the existence of violent communication, so I could leave it there I suppose. Continuing anyway…

It’s fairly common when anyone starts to talk about the harm caused by something like offensive jokes, or even how “casual” racism/ sexism/ other bigotries hurts people despite a lack of intention to do so: “It’s just words. Grow up. Of course that isn’t violent, don’t be silly”. Dismissal.

So why bother writing this? Not sure it will convince anyone, but I don’t need it to – just gathering thoughts, refreshing some concepts—apologies in advance to sociologists and philosophers for the meandering and inevitable failures to cite key points and figures; comments and similar pieces welcome!

Violence can have many modifiers, like physical; “physical violence” is not a tautology.

Content notes: abuse, sexual violence, neglect

Denying that there is a diversity of violent acts is similar to the refusal to accept that toxic masculinity is not the same thing as masculinity; adding a modifier specifies the type of violence being discussed.

There are so many things we categorise in this way. We know that e.g. engineering has a plurality of disciplines within it. That doesn’t mean a chemical engineer is no different from a structural engineer, or a civil engineer just because they are all engineers! They have recognisable differences that define each role. Sometimes there’s overlap.

We can distinguish between types of violence without insisting there’s only one kind, or making value judgments about one form over another.

Recognising verbal violence

I think the generation that so readily deployed “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” influenced too many of us to recognise only one kind of violence, in which physical acts cause visible and/or serious or lasting physical harm.
But that’s a limited and unhelpful view of what violence can be.

Apart from anything else, this attitude has and continues to put people into situations that are abusive, while simultaneously preventing them from recognising the abuse. Equally, people can easily become bullies or abusers while believing that the only way to be violent is if they physically harm somebody.

If someone truly believe that words cannot hurt people, they will dismiss their own reactions when someone verbally abuses them, through believing the initial lie that words can’t be violence.

But they can elicit similar bodily reactions (fear, fight-or-flight responses, long-term consequences for mental health) that physical threats do; often because they foreshadow or are clear stand-ins for physical violence. We (well, some of us) now understand some concepts of malicious communications like threatening people, racist hate speech, incitement to acts of (physical) violence and more.

Also, importantly: hate crimes are not only violent to their direct targets, but indirectly to others who belong to the same group(s) as those targeted.

I doubt people would insist that someone on the other end of a phone line promising they’ll be finding you and doing terrible things to you isn’t violent because it’s just words. Or that someone frequently screaming at children as tears stream down their cheeks that they better behave and shut up isn’t violence, even if physical punishment is never enacted. Although, since people still refuse to accept spanking as violent, it actually wouldn’t surprise me.

Where it’s less clear-cut, I suppose, is in cases where someone’s speech supports, promotes or reinforces an inherently violent status quo without being overtly aggressive; for example, making jokes that punch down.

Whether comedy targeting the socially less-powerful can be or is a form of violence, or contributes to it, is a huge topic and not what I really want to focus on here (and there’s another distinction between professional comics and everyday interpersonal joking), but I do tend to agree with this, which is often apparently misattributed to Sir Terry Pratchett:

The point of satire is to attack the powerful, to expose their hypocrisy and absurdity, and of course to be funny. If satire is directed downwards it is not satire, it’s bullying.

Tim Sanders

And similarly (though again, much is said about the potential or real harm of jokes and cruel comedy, it’s not what I want to focus on):

“Joking” is a tactic commonly used by abusers. We put the word joking in quotes when discussing it in the abusive context because words that deliberately hurt others are not truly jokes… To make an entertaining joke… requires more creativity than sarcasm and put-downs. 

The Mend Project

I think if we can see that minstrelsy was so damaging in its effects of reinforcing and promoting racism and white supremacy, then we can know that just because some audiences may find something funny and speakers believe themselves to be “just joking”, it does not mean that thing is definitely harmless. Then, does the harm constitute violence?

This is where it seems to me that some sociology and philosophy in all our education would benefit us. Knowing about different forms of power—that people can have, be denied or affected by, and wield—would help when trying to have these conversations. I covered some of this in a post about epistemic injustice (the idea that people can be unfairly discriminated against in their capacity as knowers based on prejudices about the speaker) previously.

Without going over every philosopher who’s ever discussed violence, harm and speech (partly because I am no expert)…

What is Violence?

Going backwards a bit, first you’d want to ask if your definition of violence is solely based on acts, or includes effects/victim(s). I’d say it has to be both, because otherwise you can end up categorising some things as violence that don’t need to be and—importantly—missing some things that are, simply because you don’t consider the act itself to be violent.

A gymnast might suffer injuries due to physical exertion or accidents, but we don’t need to categorise acts of gymnastics as inherently violent.

Conversely, marital rape was only recognised as a crime against the victim themselves (rather than husbands) in the late in the 20th century in the US and UK because it was believed that men owned the women they married (a current belief in some parts of the world); see also slavery—both resting on the idea that one can’t be “violent” to one’s property. Obviously ridiculous and extremely damaging views now, but often justified at the time, and now in some cases, despite victims’ clear experience of the violence.

I think that’s where we’re falling down in these cases where people tend to come out batting for something they personally view as non-violent; it’s a choice to ignore the effects. Maybe to paint them as irrelevant, unimportant, “just feelings”—this is what happens when people say things like “you chose to take offense” (more on offense here).

The WHO defines violence as:

“The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation.”

World Health Organization

I’d say even this one has its limitations. Intentional sticks out. Is something only violent if it’s intended? Skipping to ‘neglect’ below, I’d say no. Also, if we come to understand how structural violence hurts people (see below), many of us are or have been unwitting participants in various forms of that. Was harm intended? Even if not, that doesn’t mean there was none. “Intent doesn’t equal impact” as it goes.

It turns out, what we mean by “violence” has evolved—as our definitions so often do—the past several decades, and so too our understanding of it:

Until the 1960s, the word “violence” in English-language political thought referred almost exclusively to illegal forms of bodily harm, property destruction, or public disorder. But this pattern of usage began to change dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s…

scholars began asking whether a distinctive kind of violence might operate in the workings of language as well. When violence had been imagined only in terms of direct bodily harm, it was hard to see it in language… Language, too, is a sphere of power.

…A focus on individual behavior and agency as the originary site of language’s force can make the systemic or the structural sometimes harder to perceive.

Matt Shafer (2022): Silence Is Violence, and So Is Speech, New Political Science, DOI: 10.1080/07393148.2022.2028117

Some working knowledge of institutional power and systemic and structural violence is key to unpicking the power of language and how it can contribute to harm.

Institutional power is the (potential) ability or official authority to decide what is best for others; to decide who will have access to resources, and/or the capacity to exercise control over others. 

Examples of powerful institutions: police forces; governments; religions; schooling systems and academy; marriage.

Indirect or structural violence is where no direct actor exists. Violence is rather built into the structures, appearing as unequal power relations and, consequently, as unequal opportunities.

Examples: wealth inequality & poverty, white supremacy and colonisation, ableism & neurotypical normativity, patriarchy and cisheteronormativity/hegemonic masculinity.

Types of Violence

More on this here, and a line from it: “the dividing lines between the types or nature of violence are not always this clear – they can easily overlap, and influence or reinforce each other.”

Physical is the obvious one (which can be sub-divided into categories like self-directed, interpersonal, collective, and further types within that, such as intimate partner violence as a category within interpersonal violence, or warfare and terrorism under collective) and probably what most people think of when they hear the word. But it is not the only one.

Sexual violence is actually separated from physical, because it includes unwanted “non-contact acts of a sexual nature”, and the harm is often psyhological as well as physical (though this is the case for most forms of violence).

Neglect is undeniably violent in its nature, but by its very definition, not physical; it is absence. Absence of care, attention, medical treatment, socialising, listening, understanding, support. A type of violence in which no directly physically damaging act by the perpetrator(s) needs to occur, but which results in severe harm and deaths.

Psychological violence is again by definition not physical in the acts’ nature (though it can have many physical consequences) but still, at least now, it’s generally understood as part of the spectrum of violence. This is a good thing and the more people are aware of this, the better we can prevent it and help victims.

Importantly, the pervasiveness of bigotry in many societies is often understood to be linked to or a form of psychological violence. To be part of a group that is systematically oppressed, to observe mistreatment of others in that group and experience it yourself to various degrees, is a long-term campaign of harm that can be put into the category of structural violence.

“Structural violence” refers to the physical and psychological harm that result from exploitative and unjust social, political and economic systems. The apartheid system, based on racial discrimination in South Africa, is a classical case of structural violence in which the state set in place unjust laws and systems which disempowered, marginalised and disenfranchised the majority black population. These and related human rights violations are significant social determinants of ill health.

Structural violence is, however, often most pervasive because of its invisibility

Rutherford, Alison et al. “Violence: a glossary.” Journal of epidemiology and community healthvol. 61,8 (2007): 676-80. doi:10.1136/jech.2005.043711

This isn’t an exhaustive list, and as you can see from the paper above there are many sub-types within these broad categories. Over time we understand more about how people work, thrive and hurt, and our language struggles to keep up.

Angrily insisting that because you personally don’t find something harmful or can’t imagine how it can be, and therefore in no sense is it or could it possibly be violent, does not make it so.

Both can be true

Some more thoughts to close:

It’s really disingenuous to claim that words can’t be violent and, for example, it’s “making a mockery” of victims of physical violence to say otherwise.

This attitude reminds me of claims that pushing to recognise all sexual assault, however brief or meant in jest or without lasting physical marks, is somehow disrespectful to people who have experienced particularly violent or prolonged campaigns of sexual violence.

But we know that, for example, adults abusing children will often differ from adults abusing other adults in terms of their motivations, plans, and enactment. That doesn’t mean we care more or less about one kind of victim just because we might accurately call it sexual abuse in a range of situations.

Or that we need to assign better or worse to rape victims’ experiences in any sense; whether it’s one time, over a period of years, at the hands of one perpetrator or many, whether there is extensive physical injury or not – there are many situations, many acts we would call rape, but that does not diminish any one or elevate another, nor does it necessitate that we view every incident in exactly the same way.

People’s different experiences matter; they can and should guide response and support (and repercussions for the perpetrators) but it doesn’t mean there can be no umbrella terminology, as if its existence would somehow diminish anyone. Descriptive abilities give us power to act on problems.

Being an obvious form of violence, we could then say well then, what about punching someone? Once, or repeatedly? That, too, is violence. Obviously. Does that fact make it the same as stabbing, rape, murder? No, obviously not! So, why would talking about a non-physical kind of violence make someone insist that this is somehow “demeaning” or otherwise unfair to those who have experienced physical forms of violence?

It seems to me to be a kind of straw man argument, where the objector is setting up the statement that verbal violence exists as also a claim that it is at all times equal in form or effect to any form of physical violence. This is clearly not what’s being argued when someone is simply drawing attention to the possibility or reality of non-physical types of violence.

As some examples, I might recall some students I used to know who would go out drinking and go to a local takeaway called Ocakbasi to order pizza/kebabs etc. Sounds innocuous, except for the fact they’d recall this, laughing and bragging about how they’d barge in shouting “Give me food, ocap**i! (I’m not going to type in full the racist slur in their hilarious joke). Or someone who claims that the Westboro Baptist Church carries out “peaceful protests” just because they don’t physically attack anyone; holding up extremely homophobic signs isn’t “peaceful”.

On the flip-side we have hand-wringing over “civility” and respectability in protests for social justice; oh you can’t be violent to get what you want, violence isn’t the answer… when people are starving, being killed by the police, incarcerated, systematically broken down and denied safety and prosperity in any number of ways. People see politicians in expensive suits going to offices and may see no violence, but that does not mean there is none in the system they’re part of.

Sometimes… maybe violence is an avenue people are justified in taking. Even if in a particular case it’s probably not, you don’t have to claim it never is as your argument. You can just acknowledge to yourself that you find the violence distasteful or upsetting (I wonder how many violent films you’ve watched lately..?).

We can understand these things and choose to avoid violence in our own lives wherever possible (or find some others’ choices to employ some physical violence distasteful) without over-generalising, misrepresenting people’s arguments, or being extremely hypocritical. The absolutes rarely get us anywhere; how many times have we heard “It’s never OK to hit a woman” from a person who holds a host of clearly misogynistic ideas?

Aversion to acute interpersonal violence coupled with being oblivious to / refusing to acknowledge or address systemic violence isn’t a morally superior pacifist position; it’s status quo-supportive, not something to be proud of.

Also these are complicated philosophical questions, not things we should just insult or dismiss someone for discussing as if we have all the answers. If you do, please write that book…

Oh, and punch nazis.

Further Reading

On the evolution of the definition and understanding of “violence”, verbal violence, silence as a form of violence and the philosophical and sociological works underpinning these ideas:

Matt Shafer (2022): Silence Is Violence, and So Is Speech, New Political Science, DOI: 10.1080/07393148.2022.2028117

Related posts

Header image: “Though I knew I shouldn’t have cared, the words still hurt like pinches, and pinches can be very painful when done in the same place many times in a row.”
Line from Zarah the Windseeker, by Nnedi Okorafor.

3 thoughts on “Verbal violence

  1. Great thoughtful article.

    The main issue for me is harm, abuse, and oppression are already being failed to be fully recognized and are already “controversial” regarding these issues, and seem easier to get agreement about than “violence.”

  2. Thank you, Noodle: This is precisely true, and has taken me quite a few years to move away from telling myself what my bulliers always told me, and ack’ing that being ridiculed and made fun of in vicious ways really is verbal violence (and especially being yelled at).
    Thank you.

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