The rise of physical and verbal violence

I expressed concern yesterday over the violence between political partisans that seem to be becoming a routine feature of this election. This is not a healthy sign. It is interesting how politics in US are a delayed mirroring of what I was used to in Sri Lanka. There too violence at political rallies was not uncommon. Another ugly feature there were the attempts by politicians to impugn the integrity of judges and even retaliate against them or threaten them and thus undermine their credibility or intimidate them whenever they ruled against the government in power.

The recent attacks by Donald Trump on a federal judge who ruled that the documents relating to the so-called university he marketed under his name be released, plus the sustained personal attacks by Republicans on judges whenever they rule against them on LGBT, abortion, or Obamacare issues undermines public confidence in the judiciary. Judges are not perfect by any means and wrong decisions can be criticized but should not be personalized. Attacking them based on their ethnicity, as Trump did, is beyond the pale.

What adds fuel to the fire is the violent imagery that is used by politicians and the journalists who cover them. For example, Hillary Clinton gave a speech on foreign policy yesterday where she sharply criticized Donald Trump and suggested that it would be dangerous to let such a thin-skinned person have control of the nuclear launch codes as president.

Media reports repeatedly described her as ‘eviscerating’ Trump, as you can see by entering “clinton trump eviscerating” into the search engine field of your browser. But the word ‘viscera’ refers to internal organs of the body, and eviscerate literally means “to take out the internal organs of (an animal)”. In response, Rick Perry said that he thought that Trump would “peel her [Clinton’s] skin off” in a debate setting. This is also an unsettling image. One also frequently hears about heated congressional debates that left “blood on the floor”, “going for the jugular”, and the like.

I do not want to get into the debate about whether such violent rhetoric can lead to actual violence or whether it serves as a mechanism for the non-violent release for anger and violent impulses. People may be using it to fire people up or to spice up reporting about otherwise dull politics. I just want to point out how commonplace such violent rhetoric has become in our public discourse. The use of battlefield metaphors for sporting events is another example of this.

Politics have long been a dirty business but I am not sure if it was always thus, that political conflicts have been described using such bloodthirsty metaphors. But I do want to suggest that perhaps we should consciously ratchet down such violent imagery that invites us to imagine people being disemboweled and the like. It seems gratuitous and I find it repulsive, like gratuitous violence in films.

I do not have clean hands here. Although I have not searched for specific examples, I am pretty sure that I too have been guilty in the past of using words and phrases without thinking about the violence that they are really suggesting. I now consciously try to tamp it down.

Physical violence is bad enough without adding to it linguistically.


  1. jaxkayaker says

    You referred to Trump’s comments as “attacks”. They are nonsensical criticisms. I prefer that speech be accurate and I think that hyperbole is overused in public discourse.

  2. doublereed says

    I’m less disturbed by the violent rhetoric as I think it’s just to add flair or drama to these pretty boring situations. Clinton just said a couple things about Trump. I think it’s difficult to link that sort of thing to actual violence in any way.

    Trump basically called the judge biased because the judge sided against him is ridiculous. Impugning him racially is just blatant bigotry through and through. Trump wasn’t using violent rhetoric against the judge, but it’s the exact thing that would lead to hate crimes and violence.

    I’m far more threatened by insinuations and implications of violence rather than violent rhetoric to describe something straightforward and non-threatening.

  3. machintelligence says

    I fear that I am guilty of violent rhetoric as well. I’ll try tamping it down, but it will not be easy. I like holding politician’s feet to the fire (oops.)

  4. Mano Singham says

    Many phrases have had their literal meaning drained away and have become cliches. “Holding feet to the fire” is one such phrase and is not so bad because it is not really a bloody metaphor and simply means that you are keeping the heat on someone and making them sweat. Imagining it does not cause the same kind of discomfort as peeling off someone’s skin.

  5. says

    Imagining it does not cause the same kind of discomfort as peeling off someone’s skin.

    Well, I didn’t expect a kind of spanish inquisition…

  6. lorn says

    … ” I do want to suggest that perhaps we should consciously ratchet down such violent imagery that invites us to imagine people being disemboweled and the like. It seems gratuitous and I find it repulsive, like gratuitous violence in films. ”

    There is something to that. A coarsening of the language can numb the senses and be used to excuse unjustified violence.

    On the other hand sometimes I think the main problem is that the people in control are simply too far away mentally and physically from the harm and violence they unleash. A back room decision to arbitrarily raise the price of a vital drug means that many people who need it are going to do without.

    A decision not to spend money of corrosion inhibitors at a water treatment plan means thousands drink poisonous water.

    The bean counters calculate that it is cheaper to pay off people injured than make the product less deadly. People are maimed and killed, but the corporation makes a little more money.

    A boardroom vote to move a manufacturing plant from a small town in the US to China has roughly the same effect as a nuclear blast on the community. The major difference is that it happens in slow motion and causes the people to inflict the damage of themselves through alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, and suicide. But in the end the same number of people are maimed, die, or have their lives ruined and the same number of buildings fall down.

    Politicians, the wealthy, and corporate executives never get close enough to the damage they do, or have done, to witness the suffering. One of the reason I kind of liked comic book villains was that they didn’t mince words, make excuses, or turn away from the pain and suffering. They owned the damage they did. In an age when nobody admits any wrongdoing and everyone has an excuse, that is refreshing.

  7. John Morales says


    There is something to that. A coarsening of the language can numb the senses and be used to excuse unjustified violence.

    Yeah, and getting up from my chair can result in my breaking my leg.

    (I mean, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility, right?)

  8. lanir says

    I’m not sure what to think about the language I use. I find I haven’t really consiously reviewed my word choices in that sort of overall way in quite some time. It’s useful to ask every now and then whether I’m saying the sorts of things I mean to say when I open my mouth.

    The actual violence at political events feels very dangerous to me. I understand why people do it. In the moment, violently rejecting people and ideas that you strongly disagree can make you feel powerful. But that’s an illusion. Once you start you have very little control of how things turn out and violence does not convince anyone to rethink their politics. I expect it mostly prompts a quite justified sense of indignation that they have been attacked and a resolve to overcome this unjust treatment. It doesn’t matter what side you’re on. We all have this in common.

  9. flex says

    I wrote a TL/DR comment yesterday which I decided not to post, but the gist of it was that while there was a period 50-60 years ago, until about 20 years ago, where the political rhetoric and violence was fairly mild, historically political rhetoric and associated violence were much higher. So I think we are more likely seeing a restoration of pre-WWII levels of rhetoric rather than something new.

    Something did occur post-WWII, and it was reflected in the politics of the time. The major parties generally worked together and had a similar vision. Probably the greatest expression of this was Nixon’s famous phrase (taken from Milton Friedman) of, “We’re all Kenyesians now.” This willingness to work together led to the exasperation within the party, prompting Barry Goldwater to say, “I will offer a choice, not an echo.” Yes, I know the Goldwater quote was in 1964 and the Nixon quote was in 1971, but the point is that a battle was occurring within the conservative movement even then to distance themselves from progressives. With Reagan’s election it was clear that the pro-business, thoughtful, almost progressive, members of the conservative party were losing control. Instead of conservatives party trying to be the thoughtful, “who’s going to pay for this”, party. they started to drift into the bigoted and racist party we see today.

    Further, with the collapse of an independent press (in part by repealing laws which restricted too much media ownership in an single region), the need for factual and balanced reported also died out. Which, I believe, has contributed to the increase in divisive rhetoric.

    However, none of this is really new. In fact, I submit that the political rhetoric and violence in the USA was worse throughout the 19th century. As a single example, I’ll use the practice of the Blood Tubs in 1850’s Baltimore. The anti-immigrant party at the time were the No-Nothings, and they were strongly anti-Irish. So, to discourage Irishmen from voting they would get a tub full of blood from a butcher, grab a handy Irishman, dunk them into the tub, and then chase him down the street with drawn knives. This went on for several years, and led to a number of riots. All as a means to discourage Irish immigrants from voting.

    It is harder to find the coarse language in 19th century newspapers. But since most of the newspapers were run by political partisans, the sentiment for torture was present, and the political cartoons of the time showed a predilection for pain and torture. If you really want to find the coarse language in political discourse in the 19th century, you’ll need to look for the political broadsheets, posters really, which were privately published and had a much lower survival rate than even newspapers. Some of them use much coarser language than even today’s political rhetoric.

    (And if you think the above was TL/DR, you should be happy I didn’t post what I composed last night. Cheers!)

  10. Mano Singham says


    No need to apologize, this was really interesting! And the ‘blood tubs’ positively revolting.

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