Linguistic Violence


William C. Gay



Part I.  Introduction

A. Who Am I?

1.  I am a woman; I am black, poor, and lesbian; I am uneducated and unhealthy, disrespected, and discontent

a.  Since I am who I am because of what I am not, what I am not is integral to the constitution of who I am

b.  Whatever I say or whatever I do is tainted by my particularity and by my epistemic and moral fallibility

1) I cannot and should never try to pretend I am the Voice of Reason

2) Instead, I can relate my own and some others' specific experiences as oppressed by the Voice of Authority

2.  Sartre taught me that I want to be what I am not--what I have not yet become

a.  Nevertheless, in being who I still am, I help to maintain what I am not

b.  Churchill ended his essay by saying, "We are all Bosnians.  We are all Serbians."

1) I must go beyond merely identifying myself with what I am not and also recognize in myself what I am

2) I am sexist, racist, heterosexist, classist, colonialist, part of an educational elite, affluent, cared for medically, well respected, quite comfortable

3.  So, I am both what I am not yet  and what I am still

a.  I need to be sensitive to the "other" that I am not and to "-isms" from which I have not totally escaped

b.  If Foucault can say that before 19th "life itself did not exist," I can say, given Sartre's view that I am not free until all are free, that "I do not exist"

c.  Perhaps humanity itself will never exist

B.  What Am I Talking About?

1.  I am mindful of numerous forms of violence that I will pass over in silence

a.  These forms far exceed what is typical in linguistic violence

b.  My comments draw attention to only small portion of much larger picture


2.  In my remarks, I will address three questions

a.  Does it make sense to talk about linguistic violence?

b.  What is the extent of linguistic violence?

c.  What can be done about linguistic violence?


Part II.  The Reality of Linguistic Violence

A. Extension of the Term Violence

1.  Arendt:  "violence is nothing more than the most flagrant manifestation of power"

a.  Garver's typology of violence includes overt-covert/personal-institutional

b.  Galtung's direct-symbolic-cultural violence

2.  Thomas Platt says writers use condemnatory sense of "violence"

a.  "Moral dubiousness" independent of whether called violent

1) "As the range of things denoted by a term expands, its descriptive force contracts"

2) Divert from recognition that even polemic or condemnatory term can have descriptive aspects

b.  Reduces moral perspective to a minimalist ethic

1) Violence is neither only nor most common form of immorality:

The contemporary tendency to extend the notion of violence assumes that it is the necessary condition for justifiably designating an action or practice as immoral.  This assumption in turn seems to arise from our marked tendency to adopt an entirely negative ... 'minimalist ethic'.  Such a morality equates immoral behaviour with harmful behaviour, thus reducing one's moral obligations to a single obligation; the duty of non-maleficence.

2) Can oppose harm and still affirm other moral principles

a) Sterba has noted moral alternatives and also argued for their reconcilability

b) I can regard harm as a sufficient, not necessary, condition

c.  Such expanded usage may increase the level of violence

1) Used to justify counterviolence and increased social sanctions

2) I can also choose nonviolent responses to violence

B.  Violentism and How Language Harms

1.  Cady's "warism" and Holmes's "non-violentist"

a.  Even more pervasive than warism is violentism

b.  If Holmes is correct that non-violence is broader than pacifism, then violentism is broader than warism

2.  How language hurts or harms us

a.  Stephanie Ross accepts Joel Feinberg's contention that hurt is a species of harm and that victims are necessarily aware of hurts

1) While assault is a hurt, undetected burglary is a harm

2) Ross presents offense/oppression as parallel to Feinberg's hurt/harm:

One can be oppressed unknowingly but offense requires (logically or conceptually) the awareness and acknowledgment of its victim

b.  Language can perpetuate the harm of a system of oppression, regardless of whether individuals consciously experience the hurt of its offenses against them

C.  The Debate over Language as an Institution

1.  Institution view now largely associated with de Saussure

a.  Language as a convention beyond the control of the speakers who passively assimilate it

1) "Of all social institutions," de Saussure insists, "language is least amenable to initiative"

2) The linguist can describe, but does not condemn, the actual signs available in a language system

b.  When replaced the voluntarist view, seen as achievements of liberal political philosophy

1) Talbot Taylor notes voluntarist view includes a normative element which "inevitably raises fundamentally political questions of responsibility, power, authority and ideology"

2) Supposedly, institutionalism ended traditional political authorities setting linguistic codes

a) Claims to be "independent of political issues of authority, power and ideology"

b) Publication of the New (Oxford) English Dictionary

2.  Shift to institutional with John Horne Tooke's criticism of Locke's linguistic voluntarism

a.  Tooke's criticism of Locke aimed to "free language from the control of political authorities"

b.  Descriptive approach, says Taylor, "is just another way of doing normative linguistics, and an ideologically deceptive one at that.  If, in language, our situation is one in which there is no escape from the mechanisms of power, then it is better that we be aware of our situation"

1) Institutionalist view did not so much escape from an authoritarian appeal as substitute another one

2) The difference, as Taylor notes, is that institutionalism "places that authority under the institutional control of a newly empowered elite, the new masters:  namely, the professional scientists of language"

3.  John Wesley Young traces further problems of authoritarianism within both approaches

a. While voluntarist approach led to the logical positivist's call for the of reform language, institutional project led to Heidegger's claim naming a thing gives it being

b.  Phenomenologists focus on prospects that such linguistic creations enrich our being

c.  Young focuses on how ideologists have used linguistic creations for distortion and oppression

1) Institutional approach, which freed us from traditional political authorities, turned authority over to professional linguists who themselves have too often been coopted by the totalitarian state

2) Suggests that while the efforts by totalitarian states to control thought through the control of language are the closest we can get to a laboratory experiment on whether the determinist thesis is correct, it demonstrates only limited success


Part III.  The Analysis of Linguistic Violence

A.  Rossi-Landi and the Radical Interpretation of Wittgenstein

1.  Most extensive and persuasive development by Ferruccio Rossi-Landi

a.  With speaking is a type of work, analogies between linguistics and economics

b.  Since words can be marketed, language can function as capital with huge profits being reaped by the elite groups that control the means of linguistic production

c.  Those portions of language that are treated like private property result in linguistic alienation for the masses

2.  Ranjit Chatterjee on Rossi-Landi's radical interpretation of Wittgenstein

a.  Cleverly, though sexistly, subtitles his essay "A philosopher's meaning is his use in the culture"

b.  Claims that for Wittgenstein "philosophy is a struggle against the fascination of language:"

the end of linguistic alienation, of human beings being charmed and fascinated by a fetish object, comes when language ceases to be idle, but paradoxically, language ceases being idle by going to work on itself, against itself.  ...  every user of language can reach the end of linguistic alienation only by a thorough understanding -- and rejection -- of the hold of the fetish object.  ...  the reason for Wittgenstein's anti-theoretical posture, his noble inability to found a school, becomes clear.  The founding of a school that would expound doctrines in the medium of words would simply represent the failure of the critique of language.  Methodological minimalism in philosophy has as its consequence maximalism in the medium of deeds.

B.  Secondary Status of the Debate on the Roots of Linguistic Violence

1.  Identify and eliminate linguistic violence over develop and defend a rigorous theory of linguistic violence

a.  I am not going to argue for a primordial, monocausal root of linguistic violence

b.  I am not going to propose a theory of linguistic violence

2.  I am aware of and sensitive to those scholars who seek to provide the types of theoretical accounts that I am avoiding

a.  Some think the primordial problem is sexism; some think it is racism; still others think it is class; and the list goes on

b.  I agree with Arthur Brittan and Mary Maynard that such contentions are reductionistic; in contradistinction, they contend:

Sexism is not defined by sexist language, it is sexism which gives sexist language its potency.  The labeling of a group in terms of this or that characteristic only has consequences if the label is underpinned or supported by the possibility of force, violence, or other sanctions.  Names and labels can do a lot of damage, but only as components, not determinants of domination.

C.  Types of Linguistic Violence

1.  The Aggressive Language of Children--And Philosophers

a.  "When I was a child, I spoke as a child ..."--when I was a child I spoke the language of racism, sexism, classism

1) But children around the world not only mimic the oppressive language of adults but also practice their own forms of linguistic aggression

2) Particularly conspicuous in children's jokes

b.  Everyday discourse on cars and sports to see the pervasiveness of aggression and violence in our adult language

1) Chang and Zastrow provide marketing explanations for why automobiles have names such as Charger, Stingray, and Javelin

2) Background socialization in violence/aggression that leads sportscasters and fans to say such things as "the halfback 'exploded', 'sliced', 'plunged', 'ploughed', 'cut', 'knifed', 'punched' or 'rambled' through the line, when in fact all he did was to run through an opening"

3) And we are all too aware of the application of such discourse to sexuality

c.  Lest we become too smug in our sense of superiority to the hoi polloi, we need to recall Edwin Burtt's insightful and still a propos essay, "Philosophers as Warriors"

2.  Subtle Forms of Linguistic Violence

a.  Structuralism has taught us to reflect on the unsaid

1) But we also need to reflect on who is not speaking--on how the silence of many people is achieved through the system of oppression

2) An unheard voice obviously has a difficult time bringing about social change

3) As Marsha Houston and Cheris Kramarae note, "Silencing is used to isolate people disempowered by their gender, race, and class"

b.  Even when the disempowered speak, how they speak is often controlled as well

1) The language of prestige is one way this goal is achieved

a)  James Scott refers to prestige as "the public face of domination"

b)  In cases where authority is demanded rather than earned, powerholders typically "represent an institution through which  they exercise power"

c)  Scott suggests we should be alert to the prospect that euphemistic language often points to some form of coercion that powerholders seek to hide, and he gives examples such as the substitution of "pacification" for armed attack and "re-education camps" for the imprisonment of political opponents

2) As Walter Ong has shown, an even more subtle way in which language has been used to support oppression occurred in the transition from orality to literacy

a)  Orality is open/public; those who know the language understand most of what they hear

b)  Literacy is closed/private; those who know the language do not necessarily understand what they see (writing)

c)  While orality tends to be more democratic/egalitarian, literacy, unless universal, is elitist and creates a significant social class differentiation

d)  From writing with a pencil to composing at a computer, the "technologizing of the word" has also brought about "a sense of closure, a sense that what is found in a text has been finalized, has reached a state of completion"

e)  Since modes of production are systems of social classes and social classes are institutions of alienation, writing is alienating for some and a source of power/control for others

f)   So, we need to ask both "who is writing?" and "who cannot write?"

g)  It is true that the illiterate have voice, but voice, since the technologizing of the word, is irrelevant except as a metaphor for empowerment

h)  What the illiterate and otherwise powerless need is pen or, nowadays, computer

3.  Abusive Forms of Linguistic Violence

a.  Racist and sexist language are two of the most obvious examples of linguistic violence

1) David Burgest notes how racist language serves to justify and rationalize the formation of groups for purposes of isolation

2) Sexist language, along with racist language, pervades the history of discourse--patriarchal language reverses nature

a)  Deborah Tannen notes that while in most languages the female form is "marked" (i.e., carries endings that mark a term as feminine), biologists have shown that genetically males are the marked gender

b)  In species that produce individuals who work but do not reproduce, such as worker bees, the workers are sterile females, which, since they have no reason to be one sex or the other, default to female

b.  Another arena in which abusive language abounds is in the derogatory terminology used to describe gay/lesbian lifestyles

1) The long-standing/often physically violent reenforcement of the heterosexism of established discourse often makes an open discussion of sexual orientation quite difficult

2) I will save for my conclusion some of the street tactics and academic arguments that have emerged to respond to these cases of linguistic violence

c.  Eventually focus on entire social classes

1) For many oppressed social groups, their language is presented as inferior

2) Cameron observes that 'communicative skills' are crucial in increasingly bureaucratic societies, "Those who cannot express themselves in a way the bureaucracy finds acceptable (or minimally, comprehensible) will be disadvantaged"

3) More neglected is way in which, under colonialism, languages of national groups in third world have been relegated to inferior status in favor of a first-world language as official one; Mahmoud Dhaouadi uses "linguistic underdevelopment" to refer to "the widespread use of one or more foreign languages in a given society and ... the under usage (the less than full use) of society's own native language(s) (spoken/written or both)"

4.  The Linguistic Violence under Totalitarianism

a.  Lang stresses that under Nazism, language was viewed as an instrument and focuses on the term Endlšsung  ("Final Solution")

1) With "Endlšsung" and similar terms the language of genocide becomes a distinctive literary figure:

The characteristics of this figure are that the denotation of the term, although logically consistent with it ... substantively contradicts it; that the term itself is abstract and general but designates an event or object that is concrete and specific; and that the figurative term is meant to draw attention away both from this change and from the individual aspects of its referent, thus concealing what is denoted (and intending to conceal the fact of concealment as well).

2) In addition to developing a language of domination, the Nazis "intended to demonstrate that language itself, as a whole, was subject to domination"

3) Nazis' oppression integrated mental/physical and abuse of language was central to this endeavor

4) Consequently, genocide violates not only people but also language itself, which is "a corporate entity much like the corporate object, the genos, of genocide itself"

b.  In Verbal Violence in Contemporary Drama, Malkin claims plays of Ionesco, Pinter, and Havel are a linguistic indictment of ideologies of fascism, capitalism, and Marxism

1) Suggests these ideologies "form a backdrop and offer a context for the verbal violence" that transpires in the plays

2) For example, in a chapter titled "Gagged by language:  verbal domination and subjugation" she says of Vaclav Havel's The Garden Party and The Memorandum that he treats language "as a form of aggression, a prod to uniformity, and a threat to personal identity and autonomy"

3) While these plays show the "inhuman absurdities of a centralist bureaucratic system," they also present "language domination as the extension of an ideology"

c.  John Wesley Young analyses political discourse of the Nazis and Soviet Communism

1) 20th century totalitarian regimes have relied heavily on "the technology of modern mass communication and the insights of psychology into human motivations and thinking" in order to vastly increase "control of the mind through verbal means"

2) The result has been "a language of assent and domination whose essential characteristic is its univocity:  for every politically significant word, one meaning; for every historical event, one interpretation; for every social problem, one solution; for every genre of literature, one style of writing"

3) Young concludes, "the language of historical totalitarianism has had only limited success in achieving the goal of thought control"

5.  Linguistic Violence in Justifying and Waging War

a. Haig Bosmajian, who was one of the first to address systematically the many ways in which language can oppress, ends his pioneering work The Language of Oppression with chapter on war

b.  Back in the 1930s, Huxley commented on the distortive nature of discourse about war

1) Since we realize straightforward talk about war is unpleasant, he says "we create a verbal alternative to that reality," and our emotional and moral responses are to "the fiction of war as it exists in our pleasantly falsifying verbiage"

2) Huxley also notes how to many people it seems reasonable to rely on "force" to secure justice, peace, and democracy, whereas, in fact, the use of force increasingly results in social chaos that brings about what we set out to eliminate--"injustice, chronic warfare and tyranny"

c.  In his often cited essay "Politics and the English Language," Orwell writes in the same vein:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.  Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties.  Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.  Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets:  this is called pacification.  Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the road with no more than they can carry:  this is called transfer of population  or rectification of frontiers.  People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps:  this is called elimination of unreliable elements.  Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

d.  Intriguing in relation to nuclear establishment is Carol Cohn's "Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals"

1) Early in the essay she notes  how nuclear discourse often contains references to virginity

a)  One strategist used the expression "losing her virginity" to refer to India's entry into the nuclear club

b)  Others referred to entry into this elite club as "being deflowered"

2) Noting how a language of domestication is often employed in relation to nuclear weapons, she observes that "the imagery that domesticates, that humanizes insentient weapons, may also serve, paradoxically, to make it all right to ignore sentient human bodies, human lives"

3) If we consider the names given to the first nuclear bombs, "Little Boy"/"Fat Man," we learn "these ultimate destroyers were ... male progeny;" the inventors even said they hoped "the baby was a boy, not a girl--that is, not a dud"

4) Says in learning nuclear discourse gain "cognitive mastery"

a)  However, in the case of nuclear discourse, "the content of what you can talk about is monumentally different, as is the perspective from which you speak"

b)  Reminiscent of Camus, she states, "Technostrategic language can be used only to articulate the perspective of the users of nuclear weapons, not that of the victims"

5) Notes we need to ask questions feminists often raise about theories in various disciplines:

"What is the reference point?  Who (or what is the subject  here?"  In relation to nuclear discourse, what we learn is that far from being the universal human subject or even white males, the reference point is the weapons themselves.

6) Concludes by questioning whether language itself is the basis of technostrategic discourse (or, I might add, of any alienating discourse of power and domination)

a)  Instead, she argues it is "a type of ideological curtain" which "functions as a legitimation for political outcomes that have occurred for utterly different reasons"

b)  Again, point may not be to speak the discourse but to change it or to know when to remain silent

(1)    Kant suggests:

It would not be inappropriate at the end of a war ... for a people to set aside ... a day of atonement so that in the name of the nation they might ask heaven to forgive them for the great sin that the human race continues to be guilty of by failing to establish a lawful contract in relation to other peoples.

(2)    Finally, following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Camus advised that this event should be "the subject of much reflection and a good deal of silence"


Part IV.  Feminism as a Model for Responding to Linguistic Violence

A. Feminism and Supplanting Linguistic Violence

1.  Provides role models for supplanting linguistic violence

a.  Has exposed many practices of oppressive language

b.  Has been radical in the sense of going to the roots of our linguistic usage

c.  After uncovering the sexist roots of many forms of linguistic violence, feminism has then attempted to supplant them

2.  A few illustrations from feminist criticisms of sexist language

a.  Whether one speaks of socialist or radical feminism, what I have in mind goes beyond liberal feminism

1) Jagger notes that while liberal feminists offer different value judgments about purported facts of social life, radical feminists call for a redescription of what is really the case

2) She observes that radical feminists, such as Mary Daly, designate as "naming" the process of reconstructing patriarchal language, e.g., "what has been called consent must be renamed coercion"

b.  Foundations of a feminist peace politics is already available--Sara Ruddick and Karen Warren

3.  Feminists who have focused on specific problems of language

a.  One interesting study is David Graddol and Joan Swann's Gender Voices

1) Going beyond the somewhat determinist poststructuralist view that "discourse is the 'site of struggle' and a cause of oppression," they claim "language both helps construct sexual inequality and reflects its existence in society"

2) It is not so much that language determines thought but that for practical purposes it makes some rows much easier to hoe and makes others require arduous and often unappreciated labor

b.  Deborah Cameron's Feminism and Linguistic Theory

1) Begins by noting how Mary Daly and Julia Kristeva have argued that since "language is part of patriarchy," we need a radical theory of language

2) Cites, but ultimately argues against, linguistic determinism; in fact, referring to the 'dominant and muted' model of Shirley and Edwin Ardener; the 'man made language' theory of Dale Spender, and the psychoanalytic model developed in the wake of Lacan, Cameron notes, "All three approaches display some degree of linguistic determinism"

3) Concludes that "linguistic determinism is a myth," that "male control over meaning is an impossibility," and that there is no reason in principle why language cannot express the experience of women to the same extent that it expresses the experience of men"

4) Notes that "The institutions that regulate language use in our own society, and indeed those of most societies, are deliberately oppressive to women.  ...  But the  language, the institution, the apparatus of ritual, value judgement and so on, does not belong to everyone equally.  It can be controlled by a small elite"

5) In a feminist counterpart to Rossi-Landi, she asks several of the questions that need to be raised in relation to discourse

a)  "What  are the registers that men control, how  do they gain and keep control of those registers, and why  does male control constitute a disadvantage for women?"

b)  In answering these questions, she refuses to give language a privileged status in the construction of our 'personalities'

c)  In this regard, she notes the equal or even greater influence of "socio-familial relations," "the division of labour and economic organisation that regulates societies" "the physical environment," and even "individual genetic make-up"

6) Rejects view that language itself precipitates disadvantage and oppression

a)  Observes that if language itself were the culprit, then we could provide 'compensatory' education to underprivileged children and assertiveness training to women; in other words, those with privilege need not give up anything and society need not admit that its institutions "disadvantage the poor, the black and the female just because they are poor, or black, or female"

b)  Parallels the distinction that Marx makes between formal and material equality

c)  Changing language is like changing the law; it affects the form but not the substance; it may be necessary, but it is not sufficient

d)  With linguistic transformation, cultural transformation is equally important



B.  Toward A Practice of Linguistic Nonviolentism

1.  Examples of ways gays/lesbians respond to heterosexist discourse

a.  Language that is abusive is sometimes used within oppressed communities as way to prepare for encounters outside the oppressed group

b.  In "The Art of Gay Insulting," Stephen Murray observes that "while many insults denigrate the participants' own group, such verbal play is training in the quick and incisive perception and formulation about others used in self-defense in encounters with hostile representatives of the dominant culture"

1) Such practices can be effective interim solution, but we need more than mere self-defense

2) We need transformation of the linguistic and social system

a)  Foucault argues mode of sexuality as discursive product

b)  Commenting on Foucault's reflections on the exclusion of homosexuality from the reigning discourse, Megell notes that by stressing the "absolutely arbitrary character of that exclusion," Foucault is showing how a subversive discourse can magnify its power by "defining as purely discursive that which it seeks to oppose"

(1)    Institutional view can be turned against itself

(2)    Since the system is arbitrary, it can be changed

2.  We can work for a system of nonviolentism

a.  Galtung observes, "the opposite of cultural violence would be 'cultural peace', meaning aspects of a culture that were to justify and legitimize direct peace and structural peace"

b.  In relation to pacific discourse, Elshtain rejects current masculinized discourse and complementary feminized discourse and favors "devirilizing discourse" of "politicization," by which she means a discourse for men/women who take seriously in life as citizens what Arendt calls "faculty for action" and who, in giving "forgiveness" a central role, "break cycles of vengeance"/regard the refusal to use maximum force as "a strength not a weakness"

c.  Can link to Rossi-Landi:  "No real operation on language can be only linguistic.  To operate on language, one has to operate on society.  Here as everywhere else, politics comes first."