William C. Gay, "The Practice of Linguistic Nonviolence"


Peace Review 10, n4 (1998):  545-547



A. Introduction

1.  Implications of linguistic freedom and linguistic creativity

a.  We can choose to practice linguistic nonviolence

1) "Peace" is the antonym to "war"

2) "Linguistic nonviolence" is the antonym to "linguistic violence"

b.  Altered terminology and changed descriptions can comfort and even advantage us

1) Language can comfort us when used to affirm diversity and achieve recognition

a)  During one stage of the civil rights struggle, the phrase "Black is beautiful" came to express a growing sense of pride and self-affirmation among African Americans

b) Some feminists, responding to the lack of symmetry in designating all men as "Mr." and women as either "Miss" or "Mrs." coined "Ms." as an alternative that facilitates more symmetrical titles for gender when adults are addressed in a formal manner

2) Phrases and terms such as these can advantage a social group even if its members do not always recognize the consequences of these linguistic changes

2.  First Step in Reducing Linguistic Violence

a.  Often it is to simply refrain from the use of offensive and oppressive terms

b.  Just because linguistic violence is not being used, a genuinely pacific discourse is not necessarily present

1) Nonviolent discourse, like the condition of peace, can be negative or positive

2) "Negative peace" refers to the temporary absence of actual war or the lull between wars, while "positive peace" refers to the negation of war and the presence of justice

3.  Pacific discourse Analogous to Negative Peace Perpetuate Injustice

a.  Examples

1) Broadcasters in local and national news may altogether avoid using terms like "dyke" or "fag" or even "homosexual," but they and their audiences can remain homophobic even when the language of lesbian and gay pride is used in broadcasting and other public forums.

2) A government may cease referring to a particular nation as "a rogue state," but public and private attitudes may continue to foster prejudice toward this nation and its inhabitants

b.  When prejudices remain unspoken, at least in public forums, their detection and eradication are made even more difficult

c.  Interventions

1) Of course, we need to find ways to restrain hate speech in order to at least stop linguistic attacks in the public arena

2) Likewise, we need to find ways to restrain armed conflicts and hostile name calling directed against an adversary of the state

d.  Even if necessary avoiding linguistic violence is not sufficient

1) Those who bite their tongues to comply with the demands of political correctness are often ready to lash out vitriolic epithets when these constraints are removed

2) The practice of linguistic nonviolence is more like negative peace when the absence of hurtful or harmful terminology merely marks a lull in reliance on linguistic violence or a shift of its use from the public to the private sphere

3) The merely public or merely formal repression of language and behavior that express these attitudes builds up pressure that can erupt in subsequent outbursts of linguistic violence and physical violence.

4.  Pacific Discourse Analogous to Positive Peace

a.  Facilitates and reflects the move from a lull in the occurrence of violence to its negation

b.  The establishment of a genuinely pacific discourse that is analogous to positive peace requires a transformation of cultures oriented to violence and war

1) It also requires a commitment to the active pursuit of domestic and global justice

2) Efforts to establish a practice of linguistic nonviolence that is analogous to positive peace are part of a larger struggle to reduce cultural violence

3) They advance the quest for societies in which human emancipation, dignity, and respect are not restricted on the basis of irrelevant factors like race, gender, class, or sexual orientation


B.  Nonviolence

1.  Terms

a.  Correlative to the distinction between negative and positive peace is the distinction between coercive and nonviolent methods of advancing pacific discourse

1) I advocate pacifism as the proper response to the physical violence of war

2) I advocate pacific discourse as the proper response to linguistic violence

b.  Some people do not think war can be eliminated

1) The term "warism" refers to taking war for granted, and ample evidence exists for challenging this assumption

2) Others think that insofar as national security is to be defended, the use of military force cannot be

3) Nonviolent model of national security is feasible

c.  Some people do not think that language as currently structured can be changed

1) This view is termed "linguistic institutionalism" or "linguistic determinism," and ample evidence is also available for challenging this assumption

2) Others think that insofar as the violence of language is to be countered, force will have to be exercised

3) am also among those who maintain that holding fast to linguistic nonviolence as a means is as important as aiming for linguistic nonviolence as a goal

2.  Hate Speech and Politically Correct Discourse

a.  Parallels

1) Hate speech can be prevented through legal or even physical coercion.

2) Likewise, politically correct discourse can be achieved through legal or even physical coercion

b.  The use of legal or physical coercion to end hate speech or establish politically correct discourse entails the abandonment of nonviolence

1) When people are silenced by the threat posed in the words of law or by the constraint imposed through the deeds of authorities, verbally or physically violent means have been employed

2) By contrast, individuals can intentionally choose to eschew hate speech and to use politically correct discourse

3) They also can use linguistically nonviolent tactics to persuade others to do so as well

3.  Ends and Means

a.  Pacifist perspective or, even more generally, from a nonviolentist perspective

1) Much discourse that calls for an end to violence and war or that calls for the establishment of peace and social justice actually places a primacy on ends over means

2) When the end is primary, nonviolence may be practiced only so long as it is effective

b.  For the pacifist and nonviolentist, the primary commitment is to the means

1) The commitment to nonviolence requires that the achievement of political goals is secondary

2) Political goals must be foregone or at least postponed when they cannot be achieved nonviolently.

4.  Pertinent Practices

a.  Various activities promote the pursuit of the respect, cooperation, and understanding needed for positive peace and social justice and for the genuinely pacific discourse that is an integral part of them

b.  Linguistically, these activities go beyond the mere removal from discourse of terms which convey biases based on race, gender, class, and sexual orientation

1) Open dialog, especially face-to-face conversation, is one of the most effective ways of experiencing that the other is not so alien or alienating

2) Beyond having political leaders of various nations meet, we need cultural and educational exchanges, as well as trade agreements among businesses and foreign travel by citizens

c.  We can come to regard cultural diversity in expression of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation as making up the harmonies and melodies that together create the song of humanity

1) Herbs and spices to keep their dishes from being bland, so too can we move from an image of a culture with diverse components as a melting pot to one of a stew which is well seasoned with a variety of herbs and spices

2) A pacific discourse that expresses such an affirmation of diversity needs to be an understood language of inclusion


C. Conclusion

1.  Contrasts

a.  While linguistic violence often relies on authoritarian, monological, aggressive, and calculative methods, a positively nonviolent discourse is democratic, dialogical, receptive, and mediative

b.  A positively nonviolent discourse is not passive in the sense of avoiding engagement; it is pacific in the sense of seeking to actively build, from domestic to international levels, lasting peace and justice

c.  A positively nonviolent discourse provides a way of perceiving and communicating that frees us to the diversity and open-endedness of life rather than the sameness and senselessness of violence

d.  A positively nonviolent discourse can provide the communicative means to overcome linguistic violence that does not contradict or compromise its goal at any point during its pursuit

2.  Further Steps

a.  The first step is breaking our silence concerning the many forms of violence

1) We need to recognize that often silence is violence

2) Frequently, unless we break the silence, we are being complicitous to the violence of the situation

b.  In breaking the silence, our aim should be to avoid counter-violence, in its physical forms and in its verbal forms

1) Efforts to advance peace and justice should occupy the space between silence and violence

2) Linguistic violence can be overcome, but the care and vigilance of the positive practice of physical and linguistic nonviolence is needed

a)  Gains need to be substantive, rather than merely formal

b) Goals of nonviolence need to be equally operative in the means whereby we overcome linguistic violence and social injustice