The Language Of Violence

Posted by on January 13, 2011 in Thoughts | 7 comments

“But dehumanizing the victim makes things simpler,
It’s like breathing with a respirator.
It eases the conscience of even the most conscious and calculating violator.
Words can reduce a person to an object,
Something more easy to hate,
An inanimate entity,
Completely disposable,
No problem to obliterate.”

Language of Violence – Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, 1990

The recent shootings in the USA have given me reason to pause and think about language, how it’s used, misused and abused in today’s society. In particular for the news media, the governments and the powers-that-be in the corporate world, language is a tool and a weapon, a powerful motivator, a potent carrot and a potential catalyst for action, both great and terrible. We know that politicians, if they are any good, will weigh their words to garner the most support from their constituents as possible. They have trained teams of speech writers who are wordsmiths, and experts who analyze public opinion, as well as a gamut of advisers to help them decide exactly what angle to take on the various issues pertinent to their followers. This is one of the reasons it is difficult to take a politician at face value, because we know that what they say, what they believe, and what they wish to achieve can be three separate things. There are even those who believe one thing and say the opposite just to keep a particular special-interest group on side. The Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard is an atheist, and yet she panders to the Australian Christian Lobby because these people hold a lot of sway. This is done for personal gain rather than having the guts to stand up for what she sees as necessary, just or right for society at large.

Last week Sarah Palin posted a poster on Facebook with a hit-list of people in various states of the USA, targets for elimination, people who she thought that, once out of her way, would pave the way for her success. She, and others like her, use words and imagery to try and speak to those with whom she thinks she can get the most support, and unfortunately her viewpoints are radical, and frankly are not the kinds of ideas that are helpful for people, society or the future of humanity. I disagree with just about everything she says, and I don’t think she has enough intelligence to see the ramifications of her words, or the fortitude to face up to the consequences of her words when something does go awry. I’m not convinced that Sarah Palin’s hate-speak propaganda poster is solely responsible for the shooting. I can’t say for sure what effect this particular act of language-violence this poster had. I can say however that irresponsible use of words is taken far too lightly by those who spew it out, and those who receive it.

We have the same problem here in Australia. Pauline Hanson is the first to come to mind, with her neo-Nazi-like approach to immigration and people seeking asylum in this country. Her words were powerful enough to build support for her One Nation party in Australia, and caused a stir among the Australian people. Again, Hanson is not intelligent enough to see beyond her racist hatred to the consequences of her actions, but luckily most Australians are smarter than that. Hers is a world of the narrow-minded, the blinkered and the disenfranchised who are looking for a scapegoat for their own misfortunes.

Enter the picture Pastor Danny Nalliah from Catch The Fire Ministries. He is a powerful figure among a particular set of Christians who are biblical literalists, and is known for being outspoken as a doomsayer, claiming that God is punishing us for our sins with tsunamis, floods and plagues. He makes some unfounded claims about links between the words and deeds of people in their lives and things like the earthquake in Haiti and the current devastating floods in southern Queensland. He may seem to be a flash-in-the-pan nut-job, and could be easily dismissed, if it weren’t for the fact that some people take him seriously. Being a minister of a church he speaks to a small congregation of people, but these people believe the bible to be literally true, so logical judgment is thrown by the wayside. Nalliah speaks out against gays, abortion, and freedom for Israel, and his followers see his twisted words as pearls of wisdom. This can only be harmful, these words aren’t spoken in private, but broadcasted to the world via the web.

Back in the USA, Pastor Terry Jones was made famous recently for his threats of burning the Quran. The news of this threat made it’s way around the world, and to Afghanistan where, when the information was presented to the local people, there was rioting in the streets in protest of his words and his intention. While he may or may not have actually intended to burn this book, his words were strong enough to incite violence on the other side of the world. During this time Australian soldiers were conducting a routine burn-off of rubbish, and were attacked by locals who thought that the soldiers were burning copies of the Quran. The locals were I’ll informed, they thought westerners worldwide were on a Quran burning spree, and thought that this was an example of this. Remember though, even though Jones never carried out his pathetic threat, his words put others in danger.

And don’t get me started with people like Andrew Bolt and Glenn Beck!

But why is this harmful? Surely freedom of speech is more important than world harmony right? Well I’ll put it this way. In order for freedom of speech to be a useful tool, those who speak have to be willing to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Freedom of speech does not mean to spout off at every opportunity, mindless of what or who you’re going to piss off. If your free speech inadvertently causes the deaths of seven civilians by the hand of another they are still your words, and you must be aware of that fact. So many people in positions of power just say what is on their minds without thinking of who they might hurt, or even what their words actually mean.

The shootings of Gabrielle Giffords and the others at that rally were perpetrated by a man who claims that “words have no meaning”. While it is clear that Loughner suffers from mental illness, probably psychosis, and definitely sociopathy, it is unclear to me just what effect the unmeasured words of powerful figures like Palin had on his actions, but as we can see, these words are dangerous. There is a certain slice of our society that suffers from sociopathic disorders, and the words of charismatic and divisive people seems to appeal to them almost exclusively. But to a man who claims that “words have no meaning” what could the words of Palin possibly do to cause him to enact such an atrocity?

The word of the newspapers claimed that a contributing factor to Loughner’s shooting spree was the fact that he was an “ardent atheist”, as if to say that he shot those people “in the name of atheism, and using this as further justification of religion in society. Is it even possible to do something “in the name of atheism”? Of he were to shoot people “in the name of God” or “in the name of Allah”, while he would be decried as an extremist, certain members of society would praise him as a hero. Whole wars are fought in the name of various gods, and nobody seems to bat an eyelid at that! Mental illness in a theist or an atheist is the same thing, but the praise of a martyr is almost unheard of in secular society. His religious or non-religious standpoint has nothing whatsoever to do with the shooting. Paranoid delusions do. Lack of facilities in the sphere of mental health does.

We all have such access to information these days, and our information is easily reproduced and disseminated around the globe instantly. A bad idea can go a long way fast.

One final thing. The popular press uses words to communicate and do tell stories. These words will vary from publication to publication, and some will be more worthy of trust than others. But one point remains true. For the most part the editors and owners of newspapers and news programs have only one thing in mind, and that is circulation. They will never let the truth g et in the way of a good story. My father once said to me “believe half of what you read, and none of what you hear.” While this is being overly cynical, the message is clear, a healthy dose of skepticism will deliver more truths than believing what you are told by our sources of news and events. Just because a person can talk does not mean they have something worthwhile to say. It is also true that those with the least to say seem to talk the loudest.

“The power of words,
Don’t take it for granted,
When you hear a man ranting.
Don’t just read the lips,
Be more sublime than this.
Put everything in context.

Is this a tale of rough justice in a land where there’s no justice at all?
Who is really the victim? Or are we all the cause, a victim of it all?

But death is the silence in this language of violence.”

Language of Violence – Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, 1990

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7 Comments

  1. Well said. Words are tools that can be used to help or harm. People must account for their actions, whether it is in speech or in deeds.

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  2. Fantastic piece (not at all influenced by the fact that I agree with it all :))

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  3. “Words can reduce a person to an object,
    Something more easy to hate,
    An inanimate entity,
    Completely disposable,
    No problem to obliterate.”

    Careful there; it sounds like you’re decrying abortion with all the talk about reducing humans to objects.

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    • Well that could be your interpretation, but in this context, I stand by it. And I didn’t write the lyric, just using it because I think it is relevant to what I’m saying.

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  4. Great post Marty.

    If nothing else good comes out of this tragedy, a lot of people are talking about what hate speech might be, and what effect words have.

    Like you, I think “why” Jared Loughner did this is complex. There is so much speculation, and to be honest we should just wait to hear his own words as to why he did it.

    Like you, I wonder what an “atheist attack” might look like, compared with (say) a religious-based one. I do think atheists could do something “for atheism”, but it’s gonna look a lot different to what religious nutters do. I also don’t think simply saying “he was an atheist” explains everything – however, he had very negative nihilist beliefs, and living those consistently I think will have *some* consequences. That’s where his “words have no meaning” statements came from.

    “For the most part the editors and owners of newspapers and news programs have only one thing in mind, and that is circulation. They will never let the truth g et in the way of a good story.”

    Word.

    If I may be so bold, here’s my own blog piece on this http://spritzophrenia.wordpress.com/2011/01/09/gun-nuts-and-peaceniks/ which has had some interesting commentary.

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  5. Great piece Marty. We all enjoy our freedom of expression and hope we can continue to do so, that is why i worry about the whole Wikileaks/Julian Assange saga, if they can convict him then we are all doomed. Then there are the despicable morons like Palin et al. who take that freedom of expression way too far by wanting to harm those who don’t think like them…

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  6. Good post Marty. Also, IMO, I’ve always believed the main problem with our society lies in education. People have to be careful with the way they express certain beliefs, but in a society where free speech is allowed, we take the good with the bad. However, if the education in our society is improved (which in the US is declining), people will be more able to discern between the facts and the lies. People will be more keen to question what they hear before they act.

    I also agree with what Michael Shermer wrote on his blog (link after the break) and I quote:
    “We live in a causal universe, so all effects do have causes, but before we turn to grand overarching causal theories such as political rhetoric or government experiments, we must always remember the clustering effect of randomness and how our brains tend to look for and find deeper meaningful patterns even where none exist……….. The National Institutes of Mental Health estimates that about 1% of the population suffers from schizophrenia………with a U.S. population of 300 million people, this means that some 3 million people with either psychosis or psychopathy are walking among us, as well as tens of millions more whose mental health is askew in some way.”

    This things are bound to happen. Unfortunately.

    http://skepticblog.org/2011/01/12/finding-patterns-in-random-noise/

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