Violent rhetoric

[Edited in 2023 to add: Content warning for a reference to real-world murder; also for a bunch of violent metaphors, including references to sexual violence.]

Every so often, friends of mine express outrage about the violent rhetoric and metaphors used by (for example) politicians.

And I agree that there's a lot of violent rhetoric and metaphors.

But one thing I think a lot of people who talk about such things tend to ignore is that common everyday speech is full of violent metaphors.

I've been noticing this for a long time, but I've become especially aware of it since my father's shooting death in 2005. For example, people talk metaphorically about wanting to kill each other all the time. Hell, I sometimes use that kind of language, and I'm a pacifist.

Some very common violent metaphors, just off the top of my head:

  • got them in my sights
  • targeted
  • in the crosshairs
  • I want to kill them
  • our team was slaughtered
  • kill me now
  • shoot me in the face (and variants)
  • stabbed me in the back
  • who do I have to kill to
  • I could murder a steak
  • point-blank
  • that exam was murder
  • slash the budget
  • on the firing line

And then there are all the metaphors about hitting, kicking, hurting, coercion, crushing, smashing, destroying, and causing people to emit sounds of pain. And self-harm, including prying one's own eyes out or shooting oneself in the foot. Not to mention all the violent sexual metaphors, mostly centered on acts that, if really carried out, would be rape.

A couple of the above-listed expressions arguably don't belong on this list, but I'm not going to argue about specific items, 'cause there are lots more where those came from.

I say all this not to condone the violent political rhetoric that others have objected to, but rather to raise awareness of the constant level of violent metaphor that most American English speakers engage in, and are surrounded by, all the time.

I'm certainly not arguing that the above are all expressions of actual interest in causing someone actual harm. Metaphor can make language richer, more colorful, more lively. (If you'll pardon the metaphors.) Metaphor suffuses our language; it would be hard, if not impossible, to say much of substance while entirely avoiding all use of metaphor.

But I do think that our specific choices of which metaphors to use can, sometimes, frame the way that we think about things. So next time you talk metaphorically about killing or murdering or raping or shooting or stabbing or slashing or mangling or punching or kicking or blowing up or stabbing or smashing or destroying or burning down or whatever, pause and think about what you're saying, and about whether that metaphor is the one you want to use.

(I can imagine all sorts of arguments to the effect that the violent rhetoric used by some politicians is different and special and unique and evil and wrong in a way that our ordinary use of violent metaphor isn't. And, sure, I do think that prominent political leaders ought to be even more careful with their words than the rest of us, and that anything that can be interpreted as really urging people to actually kill other people is generally a bad idea. But the question of whether politicians are justified in their metaphors is really not my point in this entry, so I'm hoping that y'all will hold back from arguing with me about that.)

(Wrote this entry a year ago, but wanted to distance it from the specific incidents and arguments at the time; I'm more interested in the general issue than in the specific awfulness that was going on then.)

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