Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Vocabulary of Violence

Monday marked the third anniversary of Sandy Hook, the worst school shooting in our recent history. We all remember the sadness and anger we shared with the nation. I also remember thinking that this would be the horrible catalyst for us to finally take action to prevent such violence. Sadly, and not too surprisingly, we continue to argue over how we can make the world a safer place for our children.

Beyond the politics, violence is everywhere--even in our daily speech. Our metaphorical vernacular, which can add clarity and meaning to verbal communication, is littered with the insidious vocabulary of violence.

We "shoot from the hip." We use "bullet points" in our writing. We are sometimes "dressed to kill." We "shoot off at the mouth" "on the front lines" while someone drops a "bombshell" and we "take a stab" at fixing it. Eventually, someone is responsible or "heads will roll." It's only through "boots on the ground" with people who are "straight shooters" "who are quick on the draw" that we can get ourselves "out of the cross hairs." It's time to come out with "guns a-blazing" and to "have each other's backs."

I invite you to name more; they are countless. And try to go just one day without using such metaphors. I've yet to be successful.

I don't know how such speech affects us. It's easy to dismiss metaphors as harmless words that are simply embedded in the way we communicate. 

But our children listen to what we say--and how we say it--and it teaches them. If violence is normalized in daily speech, might they be learning that it is a simple, harmless fact of life? That the way we get ahead and achieve success is through might, militarism, and brash pronouncements of conquest?

As politicians continue to debate how to keep us all safe, maybe we can do our small part by measuring our words, by finding gentler metaphors to enliven our communications. However subtle the change might be, maybe our children will learn that it's possible to live in a world where words can create and not destroy.

Much has been written on this subject, and I encourage you to check out the classic book Metaphors We Live By and a recent article in the New York Times about the power of belligerent speech to incite violence.