I wrote yesterday about concept creep in which words are used in increasingly expansive ways – ways that obscure or modify the words actual meaning. Right now, one example of concept creep is trending, not just generally, in its everyday use, but specifically in relation to former President Donald Trump: the expansion of the word violence to include non-physical acts such as speaking.
Words cannot be violent
Again, let me offer the Oxford Dictionary definition of the word violent: “using or involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.”
To be violent, an act must include physical force. So, by definition, simply speaking cannot be violent, even if the words are intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something. It’s simple. Words cannot be violence. Words can encourage or endorse violence. Words can lead to violence. But words themselves cannot be violence. Which is why it’s frustrating to watch mainstream publications like The New York Times apply the term violent to words. It’s bad enough when college students misuse violence, rating speech or ideas or mere presence as a violent act – the result is often an illiberal, intolerant atmosphere populated with egg-shell delicate individuals incapable of handling simple disputes. But when the mainstream media gets on board, concept creep only accelerates, helping to entrench the misguided idea that words themselves can be violent.
Trump and his remarks
Again, remarks cannot be violent, even if the remarks glorify or advocate for violence. This may seem like too fine a point but it’s significant and in my view worth emphasizing.
Now, to be clear, Trump shouldn’t be saying the things that are being rated as “violent remarks.” Like Trump’s comments on shoplifters, for example. Completely inappropriate.
“We will immediately stop all of the pillaging and theft. Very simply: If you rob a store, you can fully expect to be shot as you are leaving that store,” Trump said during a speech to California Republicans. Obviously Trump’s suggestion that shoplifters be shot is deranged. First of all, Trump proposes an execution without due process; he suggests that shoplifters be shot on sight without arrest, without trial, without conviction. The entire concept is illegal of course, but also fully un-American. Second, Trump is suggesting that the penalty for property theft be loss of life – a draconian proposal more Medieval than presidential.
Trump’s prescription for shoplifters is an endorsement of violence. No question. But the remarks themselves are not violent. Because remarks can’t be violent. Because violence requires a physical act. The distinction is important, and The New York Times should appreciate that distinction. Because without the distinction, outsized emphasis is placed on words. If words are accepted as violence, then reactions to the “violent” words would justifiably be the reactions that are typically reserved for reacting to violent acts. That’s a scary premise that breeds illiberalism and intolerance. We’re being offered a glimpse of what that premise looks like, because the premise is taking hold on campus and in the workplace, with the endorsement of therapists and human resources departments. But it’s a path to be avoided, and the mainstream media, who deals singularly in the distribution of words and ideas, should be the first to recognize that words cannot be violent.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Editor and opinion writer at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, Harrison joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. Harrison listens to Dokken.
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