“The Practice of Linguistic Nonviolence.”  Peace Review 10, n4 (1998): 545-547.


The Practice of Linguistic Nonviolence


William C. Gay


Does language do violence, and, if so, can linguistic violence be overcome?  Language can do violence if violence does not require the exercise of physical force, and linguistic violence can be overcome if its use can be avoided.  Some forms of violence do not use physical force, and various means are available for avoiding linguistic violence.  Hence, although linguistic violence can and does occur, it also can be overcome.

Much of my recent work has focused on how language, which does not rely on physical force, nonetheless often does violence.  Linguistic violence occurs when we are hurt psychologically by words and when we are harmed socially by words.  While most people are conscious of the pain that words can cause, many social groups are often unconscious of injustices that language helps to create and sustain.  Exposing both of these forms of linguistic violence is the first step.

In my efforts to expose linguistic violence, I make use of a continuum that progresses from subtle, through abusive, to grievous forms.  Subtle forms range from children's jokes to official languages.  Even when the hurt or harm is minimal and unintentional, these forms frequently escalate into young people incorporating derogatory terms into their attempts at humor and to governments instituting discriminatory policies against groups who speak an unofficial dialect or a foreign language.  Abusive forms are especially conspicuous in racist, sexist, heterosexist, and classist discourse.  Abusive forms rely on offensive terms and frequently aim to hurt psychologically the individuals to whom they are directed.  Both the practitioners and victims are more likely to be aware of the degrading intent of these forms of communication.  Nevertheless, like subtle forms, abusive forms can function in an oppressive manner without all individuals experiencing their use as offensive.  Finally, at the extreme, grievous forms are found in many expressions of warist discourse, including nuclear discourse, totalitarian language, and genocidal language.  Grievous forms often have the intent to silence or even physically eliminate an entire social group.  Even though the eradication of these grievous forms poses the most formidable challenge, accounts of social groups who have resisted such linguistic and physical oppression provide strong evidence that linguistic violence can be at least partially overcome even in these extreme cases.

In the next section, I will give a brief account of how linguistic violence occurs and why it is wrong.  Once linguistic violence has been identified and assessed, strategies for its reduction or elimination can be considered.  Following my initial account on linguistic violence, I will provide two sections that focus on the means for avoiding linguistic violence.  Drawing an analogy to the distinction between negative and positive peace, I will argue that  linguistically violent expressions can be absent without linguistic justice being present.  Then, I will argue that whether we are just eliminating linguistic violence or also advancing linguistic justice, we should employ linguistically nonviolent means.


In my research on linguistic violence, I have stressed several points about language.  In general, language is an institution that reflects and perpetuates relations of power.  In this regard, linguists often stress that language is a set of conventions that are largely beyond the control of the speakers who are socialized to passively assimilate it.  Social critics, by contrast, emphasize that the analysis of language should not be separated from an awareness of social classes and the relative social positions of the participants in any communicative situation.

As I have already asserted, language, as a social institution, can do violence against individuals that is psychological rather than physical.  Sometimes, when we are conscious of the negative effects of terms, words hurt us.  Such hurt is equally real in individual verbal insults and institutionally sanctioned demeaning terminology.  A child can become seriously scared psychologically when parents repeatedly shout, "You're stupid!" or "You're a nuisance!"  And it generally hurts women when men call them "babes" or "foxes."  Language that hurts us is termed "offensive."  On other occasions, even when we are not conscious of the negative effects, words can still harm us.  Such harm also occurs on both individual and institutional levels.  Language does harm when, with its differential terms, it elevates one group and devalues another.  We may not see the harm when someone calls adult females "girls" unless we hear them refer to adult males of the same age as "men."  Inhabitants of Africa may accept their nations as "underdeveloped" and "less civilized" until they learn that, before colonial rule and Eurocentric values were imposed, their ancestors operated quite effectively with alternative political and moral systems.  Language that harms us is termed "oppressive."  This distinction between offensive and oppressive language is found on all levels of the continuum of linguistic violence.

Although language shapes human consciousness and behavior, language does not fully determine our thoughts and actions.  Nevertheless, the lack of linguistic determinism does not imply that, once recognized, linguistic violence will be overcome.  On the contrary, linguistic freedom and linguistic creativity can be used to impose additional restrictions on social groups and further distort perceptions of them, just as much as they can be used to empower social groups and enrich our understanding and appreciation of human diversity.  Even more disturbing is the fact that language that appears to reduce or avoid linguistic violence may bring about changes that are more apparent than real when no accompanying change occurs in the cultural base that spawns and sustains various forms of social violence.  One of my aims in the next section is to clarify and develop this point.

Before turning linguistic nonviolence, I wish to emphasize the importance of moving beyond the identification and illustration of the various forms of linguistic violence.  I do accept the view that, logically, classification should precede evaluation.  Nevertheless, I also maintain that analysis is incomplete when it does not proceed from a descriptive account to a normative assessment.  Most moralists and ethicists consider the use of physical violence to be wrong when it is exercised against individuals or groups without their consent; some find all use of physical violence to be wrong.  Assuming that many, if not all, instances of physical violence are wrong, I conclude that many, if not all, instances of psychological violence are wrong.  Although these two types of violence are different in kind, their differences in degree are not a function of whether the violence is physical or psychological.  Even if violence reaches its most extreme manifestation in war, some instances of psychological violence cause more hurt or harm than many lesser types of physical violence.  From a moral perspective, then, when apart from their consent individuals are hurt or harmed by language, the violence inflicted on them is wrong.  As in cases of unjustified physical violence, the infliction of linguistic violence should be condemned and efforts should be made to prevent it.


Because a range of linguistic freedom and linguistic creativity is open to us, we can choose to practice linguistic nonviolence.  As should be obvious, "linguistic nonviolence" is the antonym to "linguistic violence" as "peace" is the antonym to "war."  Whether we are conscious of their effects, altered terminology and changed descriptions can comfort and even advantage us.  Language can comfort us when used to affirm diversity and achieve recognition.  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.  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.  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.

Many times the first step in reducing linguistic violence is to simply refrain from the use of offensive and oppressive terms.  However, just because linguistic violence is not being used, a genuinely pacific discourse is not necessarily present.  Nonviolent discourse, like the condition of peace, can be negative or positive.  "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.

The pacific discourse that is analogous to negative peace can actually perpetuate injustice.  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.  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.  When prejudices remain unspoken, at least in public forums, their detection and eradication are made even more difficult.  Of course, we need to find ways to restrain hate speech in order to at least stop linguistic attacks in the public arena.  Likewise, we need to find ways to restrain armed conflicts and hostile name calling directed against an adversary of the state.  However, even if avoidance of linguistic violence is necessary, it is not sufficient.  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.  Thus, 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.  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.

Pacific discourse that is analogous to positive peace facilitates and reflects the move from a lull in the occurrence of violence to its negation.  The establishment of a genuinely pacific discourse that is analogous to positive peace requires a transformation of cultures oriented to violence and war.  It also requires a commitment to the active pursuit of domestic and global justice.  Efforts to establish a practice of linguistic nonviolence that is analogous to positive peace are part of a larger struggle to reduce cultural violence.  They advance the quest for societies in which human emancipation, dignity, and respect are not restricted on the basis of irrelevant factors like gender, race, or sexual orientation.


Correlative to the distinction between negative and positive peace is the distinction between coercive and nonviolent methods of advancing pacific discourse.  Just as I advocate pacifism as the proper response to the physical violence of war, even so I advocate pacific discourse as the proper response to linguistic violence.  Some people do not think war can be eliminated.  The term "warism" refers to taking war for granted, and ample evidence exists for challenging this assumption.  Others think that insofar as national security is to be defended, the use of military force cannot be avoided.  Elsewhere I have argued for a nonviolent model of national security.  Likewise, some people do not think that the lexicon as currently constituted can be changed.  This view is termed "linguistic institutionalism" or "linguistic determinism," and ample evidence is also available for challenging this assumption.  Others think that insofar as the violence of language is to be countered, force will have to be exercised.  Here I will argue that holding fast to linguistic nonviolence as a means is as important as aiming for linguistic nonviolence as a goal.

Hate speech can be prevented through legal or even physical coercion.  Likewise, politically correct discourse can be achieved through legal or even physical coercion.  The use of legal or physical coercion to end hate speech or establish politically correct discourse entails the abandonment of nonviolence.  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.  By contrast, individuals can intentionally choose to eschew hate speech and to use politically correct discourse.  They also can use linguistically nonviolent tactics to persuade others to do so as well.

From a pacifist perspective or, even more generally, from a nonviolentist perspective, much discourse about ending violence and war and achieving peace and social justice places a primacy on ends over means.  When the end is primary, nonviolence may be practiced only so long as it is effective.  For the pacifist and nonviolentist, the primary commitment is to the means.  The commitment to nonviolence requires that the achievement of political goals is secondary.  Political goals must be foregone or at least postponed when they cannot be achieved nonviolently.

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.  Linguistically, these activities go beyond the mere removal from discourse of terms which convey biases based on race, gender, and sexual orientation.  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.  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.  We can come to regard races, sexes, and cultures as making up the harmonies and melodies that together create the song of humanity.  Just as creative and appreciated cooks use a wide variety of 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.  A pacific discourse that expresses such an affirmation of diversity needs to be an understood language of inclusion.


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

The first step is breaking our silence concerning the many forms of violence.  We need to recognize that often silence is violence; frequently, unless we break the silence, we are being complicitous to the violence of the situation.  However, in breaking the silence, our aim should be to avoid counter-violence, in its physical forms and in its verbal forms.  Efforts to advance peace and justice should occupy the space between silence and violence.  Linguistic violence can be overcome, but the care and vigilance of the positive practice of physical and linguistic nonviolence is needed if the gains are to be substantive, rather than merely formal, and if the goals of nonviolence are to be equally operative in the means whereby we overcome linguistic violence and social injustice.