When is Language Violent?

A famous adage is “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Of course, we all know such a claim is utter and complete bullshit. Words can do profound psychological and physical harm to humans, contributing to real, biologically verifiable trauma. 

I was reading a NYT article the other day which focused on Professor Loretta J. Ross of Smith College. Described as a “radical Black feminist who has been doing human rights work for four decades,” Professor Ross is an outspoken opponent of cancel culture and reportedly said, “Every time somebody disagrees with me it’s not ‘verbal violence’…Overstatement of harm is not helpful when you’re trying to create a culture of compassion.” To be clear, Professor Ross does think that call-outs, or public demands for accountability, are valuable in certain circumstances (such as politics). And she does believe that language can cause “harm, slight or damage.” Still, Professor Ross complicates the notion of language as violence, and she often pushes back against youth activists, who allegedly use toxic strategies and overstate the violence inherent in language. 

But who gets to quantify how “violent” specific language is? Who decides when harm is “overstated”? In our reading for this week, we read many troubling anecdotes about language as violence, and we read about the discrepancy between how a white educator and Baldwin view the violence of language. In Nobody Knows My Name, G. claims that, “[white students] just––call me names. I don’t let it bother me” (CE 190). But we know due to numerous studies that such an environment did bother G., as verbal abuse can submit the body to chronic stress and cause a number of long and short term ailments, going as far as causing “meaningful alterations in brain structure.” Baldwin recognizes the danger that G. is in, noting that his family is risking “G.’s present well-being and his future psychological and mental health” (195). The white principal doesn’t see it this way, though. The principle claims that the racist incidents G. is subjected to are “nothing at all––‘It was a gesture more than anything else’” (194). 

G. himself draws a line between verbal and physical abuse. He reportedly says, “It’s hard enough…to keep quiet and keep walking when they call you nigger. But if anybody spits on me, I know I’ll have to fight” (193). Of course, there is a difference between verbal and physical violence, as G. notes. But this difference has no bearing on the degree of harm caused by each. It is easy to condemn the language G. was subjected to as violence. It is easy to see how such an environment would cause profound trauma and chronic stress. But today, as young people are accused of being “snowflakes,” we face new challenges. As progressive activists like Professor Ross indict our conflation of language and violence, we have to draw the line somewhere. For example, Professor Ross does not believe misgendering a transgender student is grounds for a “call-out.” But studies have shown that misgendering causes real, physical harm. We must be wary of our language and the harm it can cause, while also recognizing that it is nearly impossible to know how specific language will affect a specific person.

One thought on “When is Language Violent?”

  1. David, thank you for this insightful post! I think that taking language seriously is key to understanding the many ways in which individuals experience trauma.

    For example, in the book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk, he explains how even indirect exposure to trauma can change the human brain. Verbal abuse, then, has far reaching effects that influence the rest of the individual’s life. Van Der Kolk writes that “…trauma produces actual physiological changes, including a recalibration of the brain’s alarm system, an increase in stress hormone activity, and alterations in the system that filters relevant information from irrelevant. We now know that trauma compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive” (6). What trauma can mean for G., then, is a radical shift in his ability to feel fully alive and to thrive in his everyday life. The trauma of racism, as we have discussed in class, is a key factor in the mental health of those who experience racism consistently. Underplaying the effects of verbal abuse seems to me to be a tactic in suppressing the various damaging and far reaching effects of racism.

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