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Speaking of Violence: Words In The Wake of Tucson's Tragedy

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A snippet of conversation:

Speaker: "Grandpa always said: 'You have to choose your battles and decide what hill you want to die on' and that's how I live my life. I'm going to kill two birds with one stone this time giving it my best shot even though I know it's a long shot. I know I'm walking through a minefield. I know I'm a target. I just hope that while I'm in the crosshairs that my idea doesn't bomb or get shot down. I'm going to aim it right between their eyes and I will take no prisoners. It's a failsafe plan that will advance our whole mission. I personally think it's to die for. I know I'm sticking my neck out here but you just can't keep beating a dead horse. So I promise to soldier on keeping the ultimate goal of victory in my sights."

Response: "You're such a trooper; that place can be such a war zone. Sounds like you're locked and loaded, buddy, and more than ready for this skirmish. I'm thinking that plan of yours will blow them out of the water. You really know how bring 'em to their knees. Now go get 'em, comrade. Knock 'em dead."

What if I told you this conversation is not about a battlefront but a boardroom? Now read it again and this time notice how you feel and what's happening in your body. How does it feel in your stomach or solar plexus? Any heat there? Any tightness under your ribcage? What is your breath doing? Did you hold your breath at all or did your breath go shallow? Did your jaw tighten just a little? Is there a tension somewhere in your muscles?

In that dialogue, I not only violated the cardinal rules about not using clichés but I used a litany of violent words with accompanying violent images. I used weaponry, battle and war metaphors. The idiom "kill two birds with one stone" comes from the 17th century and was originally a reference to statistics and how unlikely it is to solve two problems with the same action by referencing bird killing with a slingshot. Some of the language suggests weapons and in particular, guns. There are war metaphors, some of them even nuclear. Beating an animal is cruelty and beating it until it's dead is far beyond cruel or violent; it's sadistic. Explosions and beheading or lynching is suggested with a reference to the neck. It's not a battle or fight of humans that is being described here; it's a meeting of humans!

There is an inherent kind of violence that is already there -- in the words themselves. Many of the words and phrases that inform and construct vocabulary, feature inherent violence in the lexicon and it instructs also the mental vocabulary. That violence almost goes unnoticed. The body, however, can't escape it -- it feels it and tightens. That same inherent hint of violence in cultural words and images subliminally suggests aggression and violence and is cleverly hidden in plain sight. It's like the tree outside your door -- it is so habitual in the landscape, that it's hardly noticed anymore. We never really see the tree.

Sometimes the messages that encourage aggression are so subtle as to be hardly noticeable. No disrespect intended here, but many commercials are specifically designed with subliminal suggestion to provoke action. Do you remember the clever commercial for Hummer where a woman, feeling diminished by a conversation subsequently goes out and buys a Hummer in order to feel powerful? The subliminal suggestion of machismo and aggression through the use of a status symbol is subtle, but is there. Now factor in augmenting the powerlessness of the human with weaponry or by mechanical means. That is how war weaponry escalated. The Hummer was originally designed for use in war. From the moment a caveman picked up a stone or club, the size of weapons -- used to augment the human hand and reach -- has grown exponentially. Weapons have advanced over time and with human imagination, reached eventually from the cave to the stratosphere. Humankind's violence now has a long reach.

Paradoxically, we have created interesting ways to culturally warn about the dangers of violence: we rate movies, label music, set parental controls. Does that work when those same parents who control, listen to shock jocks on radio and watch shock jocks TV with teens in earshot? A person's commentary on "the news" can reveal precisely who they are listening to and a short conversation will even tell you which network.

We may not know it, how to define it or ever say it out loud, but we sense intuitively something is wrong when grown people in Washington who are elected to lead, exchange heated and hateful phrases across the aisle at opponents. Something inside us knows. We sense it viscerally when things are uncivil and when we ignore the warning signals, we must then desensitize, and add layers of armor or shielding. Old Testament rhetoric in particular has a vibe and speech that features vengeance and retribution; it also has traditionally supported an agenda that holds violence as inherent and inevitable. Damnation lives today!

We know in our gut when something is just, well... wrong. We know intuitively that putting up crosshairs on targets that represent real people is not a good thing. The fact that both sides use heated rhetoric is irrelevant. There is either enough blame to go around or there is nobody to blame because it's endemic. Perhaps it's time that we all look at the landscape and remember the tree. We can take this opportunity to honestly take stock instead of grabbing the stock and barrel to fire back: "Crosshairs" and "in the crosshairs" does not refer to dog grooming or puppies... it refers to gun sights and guns! That is the implied reference. The debate now rages on Capitol Hill. The debate is about whom to blame for the murders in Arizona. Debate all you want fearless leaders... We the people can tell you that while you debate these murders -- murder, is not an acceptable way to debate our political opponents. Metaphorically or otherwise.

Widely published professor of English, Linguistics, Composition and Genre Literature at Montana State University at Billings, Deborah Schaffer, whose Ph.D. is in linguistics, has been studying inflammatory and prejudicial speech since the nineties. She warns us:

It's true that language is frequently used to stir up and manipulate emotions; that's what master propagandists like Hitler, Churchill, Limbaugh and others do, sometimes for good, sometimes for evil. Language is what underpins logic and reasoning, but it can also be used to short circuit the brain and speak right to the gut, evoking such strong emotions as hate, love, fear, loyalty and others. Listeners or readers are swept along, sometimes acting on the message without reasoning out what's really being said to them or recognizing the wisdom or folly of that message. Words can evoke emotions and encourage taking action on impulses, which is, again, why everyone needs to weigh the implications and consequences of anything they say or write.



Any linguist and much of the general public, knows that the old chestnut 'sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me' is actually dead wrong. Words themselves are actions, and since all actions have consequences, it follows that what one says can lead to intended and unintended results, both mental and physical. It's widely recognized, for example, that prejudice is not only expressed, but is also reinforced, if not created by, prejudiced language -- language like racial epithets, expressing prejudiced attitudes, both consciously and unconsciously, and in the case of propaganda, political or otherwise -- it's clear that language is strategically used to bypass reason and appeal directly to emotions, and yes, prejudices.



In the Tucson case, whether or not these shootings were actually prompted by the violent rhetoric that has dominated much of politics for years now, the incident should be taken as a stern warning that we all have an obligation to think before we speak as well as act, to anticipate possible reactions to our words, and indeed, to avoid the equivalent of shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre. The days of people spewing hate speech, telling mean-spirited jokes, calling for the most harmful kind of behavior, and then exclaiming when someone actually acts in response to that language that they didn't mean it literally, or they didn't realize how others would take their spontaneous outpourings of emotion, or whatever -- should be over. We aren't arguing for language police here but agreeing that we all need to learn more about any troublesome situation before we open our mouths, and when we do open them, we need to speak with consideration, intelligence, and a sense of responsibility for consequences. And if people can't anticipate how others might respond to emotionally charged speech or behaviors, mouths should remain shut until informed. And when being informed says to tone down the message--to follow that prescription or keep silent, after all.

Whether perceptible or not, there is a physical and mental response to being confronted with violence. The body reacts to violence because it can't not react. No biological disconnect insulates the body from the mind and what is heard, felt or seen -- that connection is hard-wired into our biology. A recent study in Pain magazine, a publication for youth and body art, reveals that just thinking pain-oriented words activates the pain centers of the brain and can increase acute or chronic pain. Words inform the mental vocabulary. What we feed our minds is the food that creates mental nourishment for our ecosystem. Is your mind a toxic dump or a clean space? While you are here and living in this body, you are spending not just time and life, but mind. And we spend a lot of time there. What you bathe your mind in creates the ecosystem in which you live -- put poison in, get poison out. Darkness in; darkness out.

The disconnect from humans and from humanity occurs when we harden our hearts, or when we become desensitized or armor ourselves so as to not feel. Stoking anger to steel oneself is dangerous for it means a lack of engagement between head and heart. Is that the prevailing ecosystem? That disengagement has never been nourishing. It has never been pretty. In fact, it has resulted in many ugly things in humanity's evolution. It has never advanced the race forward in the consciousness of humans or what it means to be human; and certainly not in its humanity.

Within every tragedy is a lesson. We have just been presented with an opportunity to step out of a kind of pervasive darkness and into more light by ceasing the blame and creating room to emerge into a new place -- of compassion, right relationship and a more respectful and healthy political discourse. While we grieve the loss of real people we grieve by association now, whether or not contrived -- the loss of civility. There might be a way to personally honor those now gone and those injured who brought us to yet another crossroads. Let me suggest how:

For a few days, be watchful and mindful of words, speech, images and how they are used. Monitor your words for violence. Be vigilant with the TV and with newspapers and look closely for charged words. It will astound you with revelations about our culture and its ecosystem. Watching your own words and paying particular attention to the violence inherent in those words will awaken you to something that may have escaped your awareness. Try becoming a Violence Detective for the next little while with respect to words, images, marketing and all things media. It will be eye-opening. Prepare to be shocked. Prepare to be saddened. And maybe to change. If you make this challenge personal and take it to heart, you may even want to become the change you wish to see in the world.

Why is that personal commitment important? Because we know the narrative on this planet is not humane. Because publicly condemning, humiliating or vilifying people or peoples in order to justify their endings is an old game here. Deriding people because of their beliefs, ideas, aesthetic or lives to make them first "other," and then less than fully human simply because they are different or don't agree with our way is an old tribal tradition. Making them the enemy and constructing metaphorical or actual killing fields has become a common, practiced and perfected human pastime on this planet. It's been around for centuries. They call it warring. It's always been the perfect way to forget our humanity.

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