The Language of Violence

I’m encouraged by the conversations developing, in the wake of a tragedy we all wish had never happened, about violent rhetoric.

Some people are getting a bit defensive. Sarah Palin, I’m looking at you.

We owe it to ourselves, and to our fragile democracy, to push past blame and I-told-you-sos and examine how we use language to communicate about conflict.

I’ll offer one example of a step I’ve taken to demilitarize, so to speak, the language I use in a professional context. Specifically, how I use the language of struggle when writing for nonprofits as a fundraiser.

Combative language comes easily to all of us. We fight not just wars, but cancer, germs on our kitchen counters, and holiday weight gain.

Five years ago, as I sat down to write my first fundraising piece for the Houston Area Women’s Center, I realized I needed to find a new way to describe the challenges the agency faced working to end domestic and sexual violence. After all, it seemed counterproductive, if not downright offensive, to say things like “we’re fighting to keep our shelter open” so it can keep people safe from, errrr, fighting.

I came up with better words to use which still conveyed the struggles our organization faced without calling them a battle. I’ve found that no matter what the cause I’m writing about, be it hunger, depression, grief, or the environment, taking the language of fighting, conflict, and violence out of play causes me to write much more powerfully about the true issues at stake.

I try never to talk about fighting diseases, either, because I think it can be incredibly demoralizing. What if you eat right, abstain from drinking excessively, exercise regularly, but still get cancer and die from it. Did you not fight hard enough? If you aren’t a winner, after all, you are a loser, something I’m not quite yet ready to call someone who succumbs to cancer.

I’m not suggesting we employ language police to banish all violent language, any more than I think little leagues should give everyone a trophy just for showing up with both shoes tied. There are times when the language of conflict and violence is apt and appropriate, and when it is OK to have winners, fighters, and losers.

I am suggesting, however, that if we agree that the rhetoric has become too fiery (as in, fire first and ask questions later), if we think our cultural discourse has desensitized us to violence to our great detriment, then we should think before we speak and see if it is possible to tone down the violence in the language we use every day.

I’m not so naive as to think that toning it down will end violence, or that it can always prevent an unstable or angry person from committing violent acts, but I do believe that as we talk, we teach, and the more teaching we can do to help each other explore alternatives to conflict, the better.

Communication beyond the battle of the soundbites can make a difference. I have to hope it can.

[Pardon any typos – this was my first post done almost entirely by iPhone, and I think that upped the percentage of mistakes!]

This entry was posted in advice you didn't ask for, big questions, politics, time for action and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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