Violence of Words

I first heard this metaphor from an elderly lady involved in social work. She had a variety of life experiences and talked with genuine conviction and compassion. I had gone to interview her for a research project. When she connected the word “violence” to words, her point seemed to me as largely theoretical, even a cliché. When I transcribed her interview, I again noticed the phrase–I believe it was “violence through words” or something similar–but all I was concerned with was how do I use the phrase and her point in my research paper. However, the phrase stuck with me. Since then, I have often viewed words, my own and others’, through this metaphorical lens. Words do hurt! And written words hurt more because they are more permanent; you can go back to them or at least remember that you can go back to them. We’re all more or less guilty of wielding words as weapons. Often, the instinctive response to hurtful words is a response in kind. Many times, we hear in the media that such a rejoinder is indeed necessary, even effective. But I’m not so sure. Sometimes, I’m reminded of Lincoln’s letter to Major General  Meade criticizing him for not pursuing Lee’s army ( It is believed that Lincoln did not post the letter and that it was later found in his wastepaper basket. Who knows what would have happened had Lincoln decided to send the letter? I’m not certain that Lincoln did not post the letter fearing the consequences related to the war; as you can read in the letter, Meade had already learned of the president’s disapproval and wanted to relinquish his command.

It is easy to blame new communication technologies for aiding in and encouraging violence through words. We are constantly told that e-mails or other forms of online communication lack contextual framing that is accessible in face-to-face communication, telephone communication, or even a handwritten note, which takes longer to send. Many of us have begun to use emoticons to frame our communications. The speed of online communication still poses a problem with regard to a potential of violence through words. For many, e-mails are quick to write and send. On the other hand, some of us take our time in replying to e-mails and, sometimes, choose to not reply at all (not replying may also be seen as a form of “violence,” but that is another issue).

I’m not willing to blame technology for violence through words. I think it is possible to hurt others through words whether we work with a computer or a simple pen and paper, whether we type a comment on Facebook or talk to someone face-to-face. For many of us, violence through words is a bad choice and outcome, no matter what. My point is not that we will never get angry or speak our minds.  But a well-honed pause button can greatly help. Some of us have it naturally. A pause allows us to take in a larger picture and not react on the basis of a single experience or a limited set of data. A pause allows us to reflect, consider, then respond (or not respond).


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