A Rebuttal: Violent Speech Actually Does Exist


Last week, an article in the Tripod that claimed that speech cannot be violent. This is a concerning perspective that, regardless of intention, invalidates and overlooks the effect of violent speech on its recipients, and those who may be affected by it. Violence, as defined in the article, is limited to physical force. This definition does not take into consideration how damaging speech assaults a person’s humanity, dignity, and well-being. The author states that “it is indisputable that violence refers only to physical harm rather than emotional or phycological harm”. I beg to differ; it is indisputable that speech can be violent in nature – and it should not be taken lightly.

To properly dispute this claim, it is imperative to dissect and critique the definition of violence provided in the article. Violence is defined as “the deliberate exercise of physical force against a person, property, etc.” In researching dictionary definitions of ‘violence’, I realized that an emphasis on physicality was overwhelmingly present. The issue with using the dictionary to construct an argument based on the definition of a word is that the dictionary provides limited perspective. As a Western society, we often see dictionary definitions as infallible. They are merely a set of opinions formulated by the creators of the dictionary. Historically, the writers, contributors, and editors of prominent dictionaries have been white male academics. There is no way that one dictionary or any document or set of documents can accurately display the broad significance and nuance of language, especially when the basis of the dictionary is lacking in inclusion and diversity. The definition of violence used in the article is reflective of the problems with depending on biased, historically exclusive sources to support a claim that is harmful to minoritized and victimized peoples.

There has been a movement by domestic and dating violence activists to promote the recognition of verbal abuse as a valid form of violence. They have stressed the importance of recognizing verbal assault and abuse as violent. Drawing from this example, it should be assumed that in other scenarios, the same applies. Violence, which is threatening and/or compromises the safety, well-being, and health of a person, should not be limited to physicality. In the case of hateful, discriminatory, and/or racist speech, debating that these forms of speech are not violent is detrimental to those affected by it. It neglects the harm inflicted upon victims of violent speech. Slurs are demeaning and often stem from a place of wanting to denigrate, suppress, or harm a person who identifies with the identity or characteristic being attacked. In the moment that someone is called a slur, their humanity and dignity is stripped away from them. Hateful, biased, discriminatory, and racist speech is inherently violent, especially because of its historical significance.

One of the points in the piece argued that the validation of speech as being potentially violent caused more violence, because recipients of violent speech may retaliate with violent actions. In the cases where this kind of rhetoric is used, an oppressive party is usually trying to force complacency on an oppressed group. Calls for civility are often calls for complacency, and they work as a mechanism to suppress the valid outrage of minority and victimized peoples. Asking marginalized and victimized people to “state their case” and “expose the flaws of the supposedly hostile ideas” puts the burden of explanation on the afflicted group, and it is not their responsibility to prove why someone’s speech is problematic or violent. Victims should not have to justify their victimization. As to the point about concern over students with mental health conditions, it is not clear to me how the idea of ‘speech is violence’ sends the message that the world is a “violent, hostile place” to them, as the author argues. I would argue that the argument that speech cannot be violent invalidates the feelings of depression, anxiety, and fear that victims of violent speech on college campuses experience.

The use of “sticks-and-stones” rhetoric is outdated, confuted, flawed. It is this kind of rhetoric that silences victims and minoritized peoples and enables and excuses the kind of violent speech that threatens them. In the article, the author states that they do not “condone the hostile and aggressive speech of President Trump”; yet it is Trump’s brand of targeted, violent speech that strikes against the wellbeing and safety of minorities and disenfranchised folks in this country. While aggressive and hostile speech may not seem violent to some, it does not mean that it is not violent to others. It certainly is to me.

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