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philosophy and world religions

hollie akers,
byron sixth form college


"Words and Violence. Discuss."

Violence is one of the most problematic issues society faces today, and it is easy not to recognise the infiltration of violence in what most people say each day with idioms including, ‘When push comes to shove’, ‘Killing time’, ‘Jumping the gun ‘, ‘Had a blast’, and so on. In our common sense we often speak as if violence and words were mutually exclusive. We think one begins where the other ends: when people stop talking, they start fighting, when they stop fighting, they start talking. We see violence and words, violence, and language, in complementary distribution. People often describe war as being beyond words, but violence is almost always accompanied by language and almost everyone who writes about the topic agree that talking is preferable to violence. A quotation attributed to Winston Churchill is, ‘Jaw, jaw is better than war, war.’ (1954, Washington Post. Finest Hour 122, 15.) Winston Churchill’s official biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert, speaking of this quote, noted that Churchill actually said, ‘Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war’ but the idea that a negotiated peace is better than war is still intact.


Some of Shakespeare’s most violent plays were by far his most popular during his lifetime. Although modern audiences are often repulsed by its gore and brutality, ‘Titus Andronicus’ was a huge success in Tudor England. Not only do characters die in ‘Titus Andronicus’, but children are raped and murdered in front of their parents, Lavinia is raped and horribly disfigured, Titus has his hand cut off and he feeds Tamora’s own children to her. The stage directions included are also particularly grotesque: “Enter a Messenger, with two heads and a hand.” Shakespeare’s influence is felt far beyond our language. His words, plots and characters continue to inspire much of Western culture and wider society. Many authors have used phrases from Shakespeare’s works as titles for their own novels for example, ’The Dogs of War’ by Robert Stone (Julius Caesar, 3.1) and ‘Something Wicked this Way Comes’ by Ray Bradbury (Macbeth, 4.1). In 1899, Sir Herbert Beerbohm-Tree produced King John, the first movie based on a play by Shakespeare, and since then there have been dozens of adaptations loosely based on Shakespeare’s work, including Kurosawa’s film ‘Throne of Blood’ (1957) – based on Macbeth and Jane Smiley’s 1991 novel ‘A Thousand Acres’ based on King Lear made into a 1997 film directed by Jocelyn Moorehouse. Nelson Mandela, while a prisoner on Robben Island, cherished a quotation from ‘Julius Caesar’ which said, ‘Cowards die many times before their death, the valiant never taste of death but once.’ ‘Hamlet’ inspired the title of Agatha Christie’s ‘The Mousetrap’ which is the longest running theatre production in London’s West End, thus inferring the ongoing fascination of Violence in literature.

Well-known ballads were incorporated into Shakespeare’s plays. In ‘The Winter’s Tale’ a character named as First Gentlemen greets a Second Gentleman with “the news, Rogero?”. The Second Gentleman is the only character called Rogero in all of Shakespeare’s plays, and his name is only mentioned in ‘The Winter’s Tale’. “Rogero” is also the name of a well-known ballad tune from the time. The reference could have been a coincidence, were it not for two details outlined in Ross W Duffin’s Shakespeare’s Songbook. First, Rogero’s response to the request for news was that he had seen; “Nothing but bonfires. The oracle is fulfilled: The King’s daughter is found! Such a deal of wonder is broken out within this hour that ballad-makers cannot be able to express it.” This is the second mention of ballads in the play and would remind Jacobean audiences of the name Rogero and the ballad tune. The second detail is a ballad with a similar plot as ‘The Winter’s Tale’ – a jealous husband who believes his wife is cheating – written “to the tune of Rogero” (Clark 263). The ballad was called the Torment of a Troubled Mind, and the only known mention of it was in The Shirburn Ballads, published between 1585 and 1616. In the Torment of a Troubled Mind, the jealous husband violently killed his wife and her supposed lover, then threw himself off a “chamber hye” (Clark 267). Audiences familiar with the ballad may assume that this reference meant that The Winter’s Tale would end in the same way, and the play’s ending (when the “statue” of Hermione the king’s wife apparently comes to life) would be unexpected. Such evidence reinforces the idea that traditional folk music was used as inspiration for Shakespeare with numerous references included in his plays. The intertwining of words and violence was a common theme in Shakespeare’s plays and in other dramatic work of the era.

Another instance were words and violence appear to coexist is in scripture. Jesus was called a prophet. As a matter of fact, Moses told God’s people to be looking for this prophet (Deuteronomy 18:18). When Jesus lived on earth, he did prophesise about the coming of the kingdom of God and his purpose to save the world. He often spoke about his own suffering and death. Other prophets spoke of these things too, but what sets Jesus apart from all the other prophets is the fact that all the other prophets directed their attention to the promised Saviour-to Jesus. Jesus was accused of blasphemy by the Jewish leaders which led to his crucifixion, which demonstrates how words can lead to violence even if it was not intended “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2; 24)

Following on from religious scripture, controversial scientific breakthroughs can also lead to violence. (Mark 7:22-23) mentions that blasphemy is one of the evil “things that come from within and defile the man.” Darwinism is a theory of biological evolution mentioned in Charles Darwin’s book ‘On the Origin of Species’ (November 1859) which stated that all species of organisms are and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase the individual’s ability to compete, survive and reproduce. For Darwin’s theory to work, people would have to accept that animals and man were not as different as they liked to believe that man was in fact descended from apes; and that they had evolved over millions of years and were not created by God in a single day. Darwin’s theory was seen as challenging the credibility and supremacy of religion, and the following decades saw Darwin decried and accused of blasphemy, his face appearing on countless caricatures of apes. Darwin himself described the announcement of his theory as akin to confessing a murder. Charles Darwin’s theory challenged the biblical account of the world’s creation, and perhaps religion more generally, postulating that man evolved over millions of years. It became the accepted orthodoxy within a remarkably short period of time with his release of other books such as ‘The Descent of Man’ and can fairly be said to be the unifying theory of all life sciences, explaining why life on earth is so diverse and complex. In a sense the publication directly led to violence because in “Darwinism and Death: Devaluing Human Life in Germany 1859-1920” Richard Weikart argues that Hitler was a “convert” to “Social Darwinism” in whose pages Hitler believed he had found what he thought to be a scientific rationale behind genocide in the notion of “the survival of the fittest”. Nothing could have been further from the intention of Darwin’s words, yet Hitler and the Nazis turned the words into the terrible reality of violence.

The Spanish inquisition was a tool used by the Catholic monarchs of Spain to suppress heresy among the church. The inquisition was mainly aimed at converted Jews, as well as Muslim converts. The accused would be tried at court, or tribunal, which would travel around the country. Those accused of heresy would not know the identity of their accusers and the only assistance they received was a defence council who would simply encourage them to confess. It was also rare that they would have witnesses to testify on their behalf, as doing so would incriminate the witnesses themselves. The main point of the trial was to obtain a confession, and the Inquisition would even use torture to guarantee this. For example, while the accused heretics were on ‘the rack’, inquisitors often applied other torture devices to their bodies. These included heated metal pincers, thumbscrews, boots, or other equipment to mutilate their hands, feet, or the bodily orifices. Torture is almost always accompanied by a verbal commentary that assigns it a social or interpersonal meaning. For example, torture may be accompanied by interrogation, and the relation between them works both ways. Torture can be an instrument for interrogation, but it is reasonable to believe that interrogation is the alibi or pretext for cruelty.

Churchill’s ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ speech on 4th June 1940 is a eulogy to the British war effort that has been immortalised in popular memory of the Second World War. Churchill’s aim was to counter the jubilant public reaction provoked by the evacuation from Dunkirk. The circumstances required Churchill to balance two delicate points in his speech; the danger of an impending Nazi invasion, and the need to rally public support for the war effort as he stated his steely resolve to ‘Fight to the bitter end’ which shows how words can be used to initiate and bring people together in violence. In the aftermath of the evacuation, despite intense relief for the return of British soldiers, Mass Observation reported profoundly low morale in British regions. Some believe that major goal of this speech was to draw greater interest and support from the United States, which at that point was not involved in the war. In June 1940, many Americans favoured isolationism. At the end of his speech, Churchill mentions the possibility that the United States will eventually lend its power to help the British in their struggle against Nazi tyranny and domination.

Psychological Operations are another example of how words are linked into warfare. They are planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences, to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning and ultimately the behaviour of foreign governments, organisations, groups, and individuals. The purpose of Psychological Operations is to induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behaviour favourable to the originator’s objective. These operations can include anything from dropping leaflets from a plane to audio-visual media, and audio-only media.

We humans can be either rational, using words to debate contentious policies, or irrational, using violence and terror to win the political conflict. The Enlightenment Theorists in France, England, and the United States focused on this problem of human “passions” and human “inalienable rights”. However, there have been several discussions surrounding the question about what role the upswing in violent speech and imagery made by politicians causes issues such as shootings. With repeated phrases like ‘second amendment remedies’, ‘reloading not retreating’ and the pictures of gun crosshairs over the U.S; It can be suggested that certain words can incite violence. Former President Clinton previously made a valid point, when he suggested that we all have a responsibility to measure the impact our words have on both those who understand nuance or their symbolism, and those whose inner demons will be reinforced or even activated by our language.

To conclude, many definitions of violence mainly suggest that the noun means the behaviour involving physical force to hurt, damage or kill someone or something. Violence is more than that. Violence means to bring harm or exert negativity to someone, and words can be used to exert this negativity. Violence comes in different forms and to just define it as being a physical thing is perhaps to miss the point that there are many forms of violence.



Bradbury, R. (1962). Something this Wicked Way Comes: Simon and Schuster.

Christie, A. (1981). The Mousetrap and other plays: New York, Bantam Books.

Churchill, W. (1940).’ We shall fight on the beaches’: House of Commons, London.

Clark, A. (1907). Shirburn Ballads: Shirburn Castle, Oxfordshire.

Darwin, C. (1859). On the Origin of Species: By means of natural selection. New York, NY:    Dover Publications, 2006.

Darwin, C. The Descent of Man: Ad Selection in Relation to Sex. London: J. Murray, 1871.

Duffin, Ross W. (2004). Shakespeare’s songbook/Ross W Duffin; with a foreword by Stephen Orgel: New York, W.W. Norton.

Johns, L (2020). ‘The Hatch and Brood of Time 8: Ballads and Folk Songs in Shakespeare’s Plays’. The Yale Historical Review. Available at: < > (Accessed 11/04/2021)

Kurosawa, A. (1957).  Throne of Blood: Japan, Sojiro Motoki Toho studios.

Macmillan, H. Quotes Falsely Attributed to Winston Churchill. ‘International Churchill Society’. Available at: <’Jaw%2C%20jaw%20and%20war%2C,jaw%20is%20better%20than%20war> (Accessed 13/04/2021)

Moorhouse, J. (1997) A Thousand Acres: Illinois, Marc Abraham, Thomas Bliss: Touchstone Pictures. Beacon Pictures, Propaganda Films.

Shakespeare, W. (1564-1616). Julius Caesar: New York, NY Dover Publications, 1991.

Shakespeare, W. (1564-1616). King Lear: Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1877.

Shakespeare, W, & Gibson R. (1564-1616). Macbeth: Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Shakespeare, W, & Orgel S. (1564-1616). The Winter’s Tale: Oxford Clarendon Press, 1996.

Shakespeare, W. (1564-1616). The tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: London: The Folio Society, 1954.

Shakespeare, W. (1564-1616). Titus Andronicus: New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2000.

Stone, R. (1974). Dog Soldiers: Houghton Miffin.

Weikart, R. (1858-1920). Darwinism and Death: Devaluing Human Life in Germany: Journal of the History of ideas.

Dickson, Kennedy D. (1899). King John: London, England Co: British Mutoscope & Biograph Company.

runner up:
jyothi hanumantha,
Westminster academy


The possible effects of words- whether delivered via speeches, used in online forums, or naturalized into everyday discourse- on the violent escalation of conflict is one of the most difficult issues in debates on the freedom of speech (FOS) Specifically, as to whether words delivered via speech can be considered inherently violent. Assume the use of language to communicate to be an inherently human characteristic, combined with the human need to belong to a group by ‘Othering’ [1] other groups of people. What this results in, is a system perfectly designed to bear conflict through the weaponization of words and language; to assert belonging via violent speech and actions. This will be explored in the form of ‘hate speech’ and ‘racist public discourse’; both forms of speech known to incite and embody violence. However, conflating speech with violence would mean the criminalization of certain elements of speech, to protect the basic human rights to 1) life 2) no discrimination, and 3) no torture and inhumane treatment. (1) This challenges worldwide legal amendments that protect Freedom of Speech in liberal-democratic countries. The following essay will explore the relationship between words and violence in three different fields of public and private discourse.


Violence exists as an option, as a mode of action in the public or private sphere, in virtually every society. (2) Sociologist John Galtung’s canonical definition of violence runs as follows: “Violence is present when human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations''. This includes somatic violence (“violence that works on the body”) and psychological violence (“violence that works on the soul”). (3) Galtung’s tripartite classification of violence involves the interplay of three forces: structural, cultural, and direct. Direct violence being that which ‘kills quickly’ and has an ‘author’ versus structural violence (institutionalized) and cultural violence (belief systems) that ‘kills slowly’ and is ‘anonymous’. (4) Such violence emerges from the unequal distribution of power and resources and is said to be built into the structure(s). There is rarely a direct causal link between freedom of expression and violence, especially in the context of restricting dangerous speech in a wider sense. However, ways to determine possible linkages are crucial.


In this essay, the term ‘words’ has been interpreted to mean any form of language and/or communication such as rhetoric, discourse, speeches, and dialogue between any two individuals/groups. Speech refers to linguistic discourse - language; such as everyday discourse (connected segments of speech or writing; larger than a single utterance) and social discourse- public rhetoric; such as political speeches and the media. It has been observed by social scientists that language in itself reproduces, again and again, the (cultural and structural) violence it was supposed to reveal objectively.


The role of words and language in causing direct, structural, and cultural violence.


The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis[2] proposes that the particular language one speaks influences the way one thinks about reality. I.e. how patterns of language use in cultural context can affect thought. (5) Through the examination of the impacts of ‘words’ expressed via language, the following paragraphs will attempt to establish a relationship between words and violence.


Anthropologist Seth Holmes’ ethnography ‘Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies’ (6) explores the impact of racist rhetoric used against migrant farm workers, and the damaging (violent) impact of ‘words’ on their bodies. The somatization (corporal embodiment) of structural and cultural violence clearly demonstrates how ‘words’ expressed through stereotypes and racist attitudes toward Mexicans can lead to grievous bodily and psychological harm (direct-violence).


For instance, Crescencio, a Mexican migrant worker studied by Holmes, experiences painful headaches, which he self-diagnoses to be the direct result of racist insults directed towards him while working on the field. He claims that each time derogatory names such as ‘dumb donkeys’ or ‘stupid-Oaxacan’ were used against him, he would develop severe headaches. In response to the verbal abuse, Crescencio resorted to drinking several cans of beer a day to alleviate the pain from headaches, in addition to lashing out against his wife and children, which served to perpetuate the stereotypes (cultural violence) against migrant workers; as it reinforced the image of them as ‘drunkards’ and ‘misogynists’.  This cultural reputation serves to disadvantage migrant workers, as they are denied opportunities for social-mobility by their American supervisors who hold racial prejudices against the migrant-workers. In line with Galtung’s definition of somatic violence, that Crescencio has been influenced by the words used against him, such that he is less well off than he physically could be; indicates the presence of violence as a direct result of the use of words.



The role of words via ‘constructed vernacular’ in causing direct and cultural violence.


The debate about FOS and censorship is particularly pertinent to online societies; frequently categorized by social media sites such as Reddit, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. On the 23rd of May, 2015, a man called Elliot Rodgers drove to a sorority house in Santa Barbara, California, and started shooting female students; killing two.[3] An inquiry into the attack revealed that Rodger was part of an online incel[4] community, and that the attack was premeditated. A video was found uploaded to YouTube, entitled ‘Elliot Rodger’s Retribution’, where he spoke of punishing women for rejecting him sexually. This alarming account of direct violence is an exposure of the shocking offline consequences of online communities that perpetuate cultural violence through discourse on online forums. Incel culture involves the construction of a violent political ideology around the injustice of living in what they believe to be a gynocracy (man-hating world) where attractive women, ‘Stacy’s, refuse to have sex with unattractive men. The language the incels use is violent and dehumanizing, as they refer to women as “femoids”[5], using the pronoun “it” rather than “she” when referencing women. There is a common incel vernacular used in online groups, that harbours misogynistic ideas which unify the men who bond over complaints about women, including revenge-rape fantasies.


‘Since they deserve to [be] raped, I cannot concern myself with the pain rape causes them’. (7) This comment posted on an incel forum is revealing of the naturalisation of violence against women, through repetition of specific words and phrases. It is becoming increasingly evident that while online media platforms have allowed for the global democratization of expression and diversification of public discourse, they have likewise broadened the reach of hate speech and led to horrific online and offline violence. Terms like ‘Chad’ have seeped into mainstream discourse, influencing societal attitudes; and inciting cultural violence against women. Another far-reaching consequence of such misogynistic discourse is the internalization of negative stereotypes and attitudes towards women, which serves to perpetuate the cycle of oppression through symbolic violence.[6]


The relationship between the law, freedom of expression and incitement of violence.


FOS is more widely protected in the United States than in any other country. The United States constitution stringently protects the ‘Freedom of Expression’ and ‘Freedom of Speech’ of its citizens under the First Amendment. The Amendment by default protects almost every form of speech one can engage in, with exceptions in a few cases, where speech crosses the line into speech that is considered violent/criminal. One of those areas is incitement to violence, a term that refers to speech that creates an immediate risk of harm to another person. However, the high legal bar set for speech to be criminalized as incitement has historically allowed for the naturalization of extremely violent rhetoric amongst White Supremacy groups such as the Klu Klux Klan (KKK). One such case that demonstrates the breadth of speech that is covered by the first amendment is the seminal case of Brandenburg V. Ohio (1969). Brandenburg was a leader of the KKK, who at a klan rally, via a speech, fantasized and encouraged generalized violence against Black Americans. He was charged with incitement of violence until the supreme court determined that his speech was never an immediate roadmap for violence towards any specific persons (8). The case was dropped. Here, the role of opinion leaders in public discourse is key. The societal position or practical influence of the person availing themselves of the freedom of expression is relevant. The specific instigation of violence between groups and the labelling of the violence as ethnic together function as a "means to police the boundaries between ethnic groups". Words deemed acceptable by the law in some cases can have violent effects on societies and communities, via a perpetuation of cultural violence.


During Donald Trump’s tenure in government, the shape and face of public and private discourse changed drastically in the United States. Donald Trump’s hate speech and demonization of non-Whites, mainstream media, and oppositional politicians, and his implicit and explicit praise of violence resulted in many verbal and corporal attacks against members of the denigrated groups.[7] In Trump-speak, the term Mexican(s) became synonymous with undesirable people from and in Central America and the Caribbean. Words like ‘wall’, ‘border’, ‘deportation’, ‘invasion’ stood metaphorically for White Americans forcing illegal "intruders" back "behind the wall". Particularly in minority communities, there was heightened anxiety and fear. Trump stirred fear, hate and anger among his core supporters by warning him of dangerous ‘others’ threatening ‘America as we know it’ in terms of history, culture, values and racial dominance. As seen with the incitement of riots at Capitol Hill on the 6th of January, 2021, Trump spread divisive propaganda that resembled right extremists ideology and glorification of violence in many respects. (9)


Whereas the well-known children’s rhyme claims that, unlike physical violence, “words will never hurt me”, the above case studies demonstrate the opposite. Words are powerful. And words, in the relevant manifestations and dimensions, can cause violence; be it cultural, structural, political, direct, or an interplay between the aforementioned. Once a link has been established between words and violence, it is important to consider the extent to which the use of words to incite violence can be prevented. Freedom of expression is a core value of democratic societies and violence can be a real threat to democracy and peace. Limiting the former to prevent the latter is a delicate endeavour. From a human rights perspective, the right to life and the prohibition of discrimination are to be balanced against the freedom of expression. It is clear that there is no perfect solution to the problem of violent speech, and it is unsatisfactory to suggest that each country should respond to violent speech in a manner appropriate to the contours of its own legal and political culture. (10) How then, to assess when words can kill?


“Freedom of Speech protects offensive speech not because it is pretty but because censorship is even more harmful to the liberty and freedom for which democratic society stands.” [8] However, in a large survey of hate crimes, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe found that violence and hate crimes often occur in a context of intolerant or racist public discourse. Thus, although we do not know precisely what the importance of a particular expression is in a specific situation of violence, 'we do know that it counts'. One of the main problems with a consequentialist approach to freedom of expression, the idea that the consequences of a particular expression matter- is the potential of violence. The causal links between speech and actual or future violence are usually difficult to establish in each particular instance. Frederick Schauer has therefore proposed the ‘aggregate conception of causation’; a conception that relies on probabilities. In situations where research shows that violence is likely in the context of a certain kind of expression, a frequent occurrence of such speech will be a strong indication of more future violence and therefore an incentive to act to counter such speech. (11)


Law is only one among many instruments to prevent violent conflict escalation between groups. Education and awareness-raising are equally important. Acting too late or too little can endanger lives, while interfering too much can stifle open debate in democratic society.




"The Human Rights Act | Equality And Human Rights Commission". Equalityhumanrights.Com, 2021,

Bird, Karen L. “Racist Speech or Free Speech? A Comparison of the Law in France and the United States.” Comparative Politics, vol. 32, no. 4, 2000, pp. 399–418., Accessed 3 May 2021.

Galtung, Johan. “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research.” Journal of Peace Research, vol. 6, no. 3, 1969, pp. 167–191. JSTOR,

Galtung, Johan, and Tord Höivik. “Structural and Direct Violence: A Note on Operationalization.” Journal of Peace Research, vol. 8, no. 1, Mar. 1971, pp. 73–76, doi:10.1177/002234337100800108.

"Language, Thought, And Reality, Second Edition". Google Books, 2021,

Holmes, Seth M. Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies. Univ. Of California Press, 2014, pp. 96, 97, 98, 99, 100, 101, 102.

Bates, Laura. Men Who Hate Women : From Incels To Pickup Artists: The Truth About Extreme Misogyny And How It Affects Us All. 2019.

"Free Speech: What Constitutes "Incitement?"". Talksonlaw, 2021,

Nacos, Brigitte L., et al. “Donald Trump: Aggressive Rhetoric and Political Violence.” Perspectives on Terrorism, vol. 14, no. 5, 2020, pp. 2–25. JSTOR, Accessed 3 May 2021.

Buyse, Antoine. “DANGEROUS EXPRESSIONS: THE ECHR, VIOLENCE AND FREE SPEECH.” The International and Comparative Law Quarterly, vol. 63, no. 2, 2014, pp. 491–503. JSTOR,

Feldmeyer, Ben, et al. “Language Use and Violence: Assessing the Relationship Between Linguistic Context and Macrolevel Violence.” Sociological Forum, vol. 31, no. 2, 2016, pp. 267–290., Accessed 3 May 2021.

[1] Edward Said’s theory of the Other

[2] Also known as the linguistic relativity hypothesis.

[3] This attack was part of a longer killing spree in which Rodger shot victims and deliberately drove into them, killing six people in total, before shooting and killing himself.

[4] Involuntarily celibate

[5] Female humanoids; as they believe the term ‘woman’ allows for too much humanity

[6] It is only very recently that few major incel forums have been banned by Reddit’s safeguarding team on the basis of online-abuse.

[7] School bullying increased with many young bullies using Trumpian hateful terminology and/or referring to his discriminatory policies

[8] Quote by Burton Caine

"Words and Violence. Discuss."

runner up:
charlotte waiz,
St. John Rigby College


Violence is that which causes harm, whilst words are an element of communication, a means of mutual understanding necessary for social cohesion. As such, clear-cut violence and admissible words alone are generally regarded as irreconcilable concepts within an orderly society. However, the study of discourse in recent legal scholarship has united the two. Academics have cultivated a recognition for the “field of pain and death” in which legal interpretation has historically taken place, giving rightful weight to the often treacherous task of both fairly digesting and formulating legal language. A preliminary differentiation to be grasped here is that between forms of interpretation such as literary or philosophical, and then legal interpretation: where jurisdiction is concerned, the words used inevitably translate to acts. It is this defining feature which has interested sociolegal scholars since the 1970s; the study of linguistic details in daily legal practice has provided us with a gateway into an understanding of how legal systems can be weaponised, intentionally or otherwise. This essay will examine the violent place of discriminatory rhetoric in adjudication, including an evaluation of the subtle phenomena in legal practice which hinder justice. Here, violence will be redefined as a more subtle act against one’s integrity – violence in the sense of justice left needlessly unfulfilled, whilst existing power dynamics are simultaneously endorsed. This is what I take ‘violence’ to mean given a legal context.

Before any specific enactments of hermeneutical violence are to be recalled, we must understand what is meant by sociolinguistics, as well as the interdisciplinary field of law and society. Doing so will predate an understanding of what gives even the most seemingly sanitised exchanges of words (for instance, those in a court room setting) the power to strike the underprivileged at their core. In the 1960s, anthropologists began to include language as a topic of study, rather than merely treating it as the “medium through which culture can be studied” (Conley and O’Barr, 2005). Through this widened study, and in collaboration with other academics (historians, philosophers, political scientists), the field of sociolinguistics was birthed. It has come to be an academic viewfinder for the intimate relationship between words, and manifestations of legal power and, by default, legal powerlessness. If we consider any instances of power being realised, exercised, abused, even challenged, the means are primarily linguistic. William Labov remains one of the prominent names in the field: he evidenced the role that social factors such as age, race, ethnicity and gender play in these formats of expression and the power dynamics that arise from them, through a study of New York dialect across different social classes. In a social context, these discrepancies in language and its uses can be seen to place minority groups in “undervalued and under-rewarded positions”. Thus, there’s a strong sense that the law’s power is more accessible to some than others. Sociolegal scholarship documents how law has failed its promise of equal treatment of all citizens, instead delivering institutional imbalance so acute it can be considered violent. Once more, as for why ‘violence’ is the word of choice here: life and liberty are threatened by legal interpretive acts, and so when life or freedom are wrongfully taken on account of linguistic barriers, the resulting feelings are ones of irrevocable maltreatment.

Claims that violence manifests itself against women in legal systems has come to be an almost universally accepted truth amongst academics. We will take this as a starting place for our documentation of how oppressive discourse and communicative lapses can result in violent institutional failings. On issues of patriarchy in legal systems, academic Lynne Henderson noted that “law and legal institutions...have played a significant role in maintaining systems that subordinate and oppress female human beings”. Similarly, Zillah Eisenstein describes the law as “an authorised language of the state,” a “discourse suffused with the power of the state. To the extent that the law embodies male values and advances male interests, it is an authoritative patriarchal discourse”. The patriarchal interjections with which law is rife would certainly support this view. It seems that law has been patriarchal for as long as men have exercised their power to advance their own interests at the expense of women – MacKinnon describes law as the means for deciding “who does what to whom and gets away with it”. For instance, even in liberal Western societies, male-produced legislation was behind a woman’s expulsion from voting until the first quarter of this century. Other depictions of female subordination can be found in marital and property law, although individual legislation alone is not enough to capture the depth of violent - if somewhat fine-drawn - patriarchy rooted in legal institutions.


Instead, we must consider how the very epistemology of law is weighted in favour of conventionally male variants of speech. Firstly, scholars have identified what is known as “stylistic variation in courtroom talk”. Robin Lakoff’s influential book ‘Language and Woman’s Place’ identified gender as one of the social variables which influence language. Lakoff had argued that ‘women, as a result of their socialisation, speak a language of subordination’ (Conley and O’Barr, 2005). Lakoff identified stylistic features such as hedge words (kind of, sort of), polite forms (sir), hypercorrect grammar, and a rising, inquisitive intonation in normally declarative contexts. Together, these features project an aura of deference and uncertainty, making for speech which is both reflective and permitting of a woman’s subordinate position in society. Conley and O’Barr, two academics keen to research Lakoff’s findings, coined the term ‘powerless language’ to describe this speech style, spoken almost invariably by those holding a lower position in society. The way in which this language was found by Conley and O’Barr’s social-psychological experiments to be profoundly disfavoured, particularly in the credibility assessments of jurors, is clear testimony to the violently discriminative nature of the legal system on a basal level. Conley and O’Barr felt that “the jurors’ credibility assessments reflected patriarchal values. The lawyers’ strategic responses ensured that those values would be reproduced”. The implications of this are grave: justice is largely more accessible to men than to women. The law as an institution is ‘complicit in punishing women for their speech habits’, violently enforcing a hidden standard of communication which is simply incompatible with a woman’s inherent disposition. Even after many steps seem to have been taken away from an age of outwardly-discriminative legal practice, it’s clear that violence still exists all the same against women and their so-called “powerless” word choices. To summarise, the ideal of equal rights may be illusory, in that the foremost right to expression remains heavily stratified by patriarchal influence. Both a woman’s integrity and entitlement to due process are without doubt made to suffer by consequence of this phenomenon and as such, the definition of violence provided earlier is met.

Violence in the sense of ignorance towards multilingualism will be the focal point for the next segment of our investigation into ‘Violence and Words’. Intersectionality is vital when aiming to grasp the full scope of aspersion at work in legal systems. Attention to language ideology will reveal the ways in which language functions to reinforce existing power relations, once again hindering attempts to amend inequalities within legal practice. Linguist John Haviland’s 2003 report documents a murder trial in which he served as an expert witness, from which he then extracts an anthropological commentary on how language ideologies of the law impact legal outcomes. In this homicide case, defendant Santiago Ventura, a Mixtec-speaking Indian from central Oaxaca, was being trialled for the murder of another migrant worker in Oregon. Santiago was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. However, the critical linguistic feature of this trial is that none of the witnesses to the event in question spoke English - like Santiago, almost all were native speakers of Mixtec. What’s more, despite the general lack of meaningful Spanish competency amongst witnesses, the interpreter provided by the Court worked only in Cuban Spanish, a dialect inaccessible to the key participants in Santiago’s trial. Haviland’s account draws on some beliefs about language which were critical to the outcome of the case. First, Haviland outlines the notion of “referential transparency”. He defines this as a ‘verbatim’ theory, the idea that expressions in one language cannot be “unproblematically rendered into propositions and translated verbatim” into another. Referential transparency was breached in this case, as the Judge instructed the interpreter to “[T]ranslate the responses of the witness verbatim, word for word…just translate it verbatim”. As Haviland wrote, the judge’s instruction rested on the fallacy that “the truth functional core of what someone says can be decoupled from the actual saying itself”. This is an interesting exploration of the relationship, or lack thereof, between actual words and their holistic, true meaning.

We can only assume that vital information was lost through problematic translation as per the Judge’s (albeit unintentional) foolish instruction, a loss which would result in Santiago’s wrongful conviction. The witness-given evidence became fabricated through translation, and the defence’s contention that there were not enough bloodstains was overlooked. As such, before being exonerated in 1991, Santiago served five years of unjust imprisonment: five years in which his liberty was suspended at the hands of a linguistically-incompetent judge and a frankly negligent district attorney. This five years of wrongful conviction provides the perfect template on which to map out our earlier-established definition of violence – had the court been more facilitating of a language other than their own, Santiago would not have been vilified in such a cruel and deliberating way. Justice was needlessly unfulfilled. A second notion identified by Haviland, the “handicap” notion, can be called upon here to further evidence claims of acutely unfair treatment. Oregon law compares non-English speakers to “disabled persons”. Haviland takes this comparison to be indicative of an institutional view that English is first of all a ‘standard’ language, and also that it is “somehow in the repertoire of skills of a ‘standard person’, one who is socially and, perhaps, morally whole or ‘normal’”. Such would be a vile exertion of power, certainly synonymous with institutional violence, though a well-documented one at that. Santiago was held as an abnormal, substandard person, with all reasonable standards of fairness violated through the court’s inability to provide him with a means of decent communication.

Ultimately, the tendency of legal processes to work at a micro linguistic level has become a deeply harmful phenomenon. Given the many instances of minorities being failed by reason of linguistic dissension, we cannot deny a “pervasive failures of imagination in traditional legal scholarship” (Roger Cottrell, 1994). Issues of patriarchy and powerlessness, and unrefined language ideals, provide just a snapshot of the deep-rooted, institutional savagery that plays out within our courts. Thus, law’s claim of equal treatment for all is unconvincing. Unfortunately, it has to be concluded that justice simply won’t take the place of jurisprudential brutality until the problem is cured at the level of individual words, and an individual’s reception of such words. Unjust power dynamics will continue to flourish in ‘justice’ systems, to the detriment of already hegemonized social groups, for as long as we mishandle vital linguistic detail.



Cover, R. (1986). Violence and the Word. Yale Law Journal, 95, 1601.

Conley, J. M., & O'Barr, W. M. (1998). Just words: Law, language, and power. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Henderson, L. (1991). Law's Patriarchy. Law & Society Review, 25(2), 411-444. doi:10.2307/3053805

Dingwall, R. (2000). Language, Law, and Power: Ethnomethodology, Conversation Analysis, and the Politics of Law and Society Studies. Law & Social Inquiry, 25(3), 885-911.

Maynard, D. (1983). Language in the Court. American Bar Foundation Research Journal, 8(1), 211-222.

Richland, J. (2013). Jurisdiction: Grounding Law in Language. Annual Review of Anthropology, 42, 209-226.

"Words and Violence. Discuss."

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