Stop the Language of Violence | Sojourners

Stop the Language of Violence

Speak no evil illustration, imageegami /
Speak no evil illustration, imageegami /

But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned." 

 Matthew 12:36-37

"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"
Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy in "Language of Violence"

The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy are a 90's conscientious rap group led by Michael Franti. They are one of my favorite groups of all time because of their creative ways of challenging injustice.  In their song,  Language of Violence, they tell the story of how physical violence is often preceded by dehumanizing words.  They spoke in the formative years of the hip hop culture but their lyrics show a prophetic view that speaks to us today.

At one point in the song, they wisely challenge their listeners to:

"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"

I have been actively listening to the words that are used in popular and social media. Our words are used to convey messages, shape cultures, and promote agendas. This is not a criticism, as we all participate in this process. We use words, images, and metaphors to try to shape a preferred precept or concept when we communicate. Our words are loaded with meaning, not just literally, but culturally and symbolically.

Every week, I talk to young men and women who are shaped and guided by the language used in the hip-hop culture. Interestingly, these are not young adults of one ethnicity or socioeconomic background, but young adults from across the spectrum of ethnicity, nationality, and economic status. 

The "cut to the chase" concept:

When you regularly use the language of violence and degradation, you soon become participants in its degradation and pain, whether as victim or perpetrator. 

Using degrading words, such as b***ches, n**ga's, hoes, etc., is not only an act of violence but it paves the way for more extreme forms of violence. Here's the cycle:

1. Calling a group of people or an individual a derogatory name first creates psychological violence.  
In Rwanda, before the tragic genocide of 1994, it was important for the initiators to refer to their enemies as cockroaches. This word, allowed them to see their enemies as less than human, without faces, families, names, and dignity. When men refer to women as b***ches, it is a psychological construct that takes away the dignity of women. It is never innocent or innocuous, but always indecent. It is the first step in justified violence.

2. Psychological violence leads to moral violence.  
Cockroaches are not only nonhuman, but have moral quality. Cockroaches are not morally neutral, but decidedly negative in character. Therefore, violence against a cockroach is morally justifiable. Moral violence makes the victim of our violence deserving. A recent twit of a rapper said "Sometimes, I just want to smackdown a b***ch.”  In his mind, it is morally justified to be violent against a woman, because she is simply "a b**ch.”

3. Moral violence leads to physical, emotional, and sexual violence.
Because cockroaches are morally disgusting, their eradication by any means necessary became culturally acceptable. Men and women in Rwanda were hacked with machetes, shot, raped, and tortured. Not by mad men with twisted and perverted psyches, but by ordinary men and women who adopted the language of violence. The violence in communities influenced by hip-hop is staggering. Many argue that the language used in hip-hop is simply a reflection of the language of violence that already exists and I will definitely acknowledge the possibility. However, my experience with youth in urban areas shows that the introduction of violent and degrading language is often from media/entertainment, and often precedes participation in violence.

It’s time to express outrage against violence. It’s time that we challenge the language of violence, hatred, and degradation. It’s time that we challenge artists and entertainers to a higher standard and a moral responsibility. Too many people are hurting, wounded, and suffering because of the language and culture of violence, particularly in the hip-hop culture.

My fear, in the words of the disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy is:

“We won't hear the screaming until it stops
Death is the silence in the language of violence”

Take a stand!

Dr. Michael Traylor is a pediatrician, child advocate and pastor of New Hope Free Methodist Church in Rochester, N.Y. He blogs at Virtual faith. Follow Dr. Traylor on Twitter 

Speak no evil illustration, imageegami /

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