Updated: Mar 30
There’s a lot of discussion and debate going on at the moment about the notorious slap which is really fascinating to watch. It reveals a lot about societal understandings and expectations of violence, masculinity, language, relationships and others.
I don’t want to enter the full debate, but as a Criminologist I find what it says about our understanding of violence and language quite revealing.
Many people are centring the debate on whether violence is an acceptable response to a joke (or language more generally), and even if so, whether the violence witnessed is proportionate or acceptable.
There is obviously a debate to be had about what an appropriate response to such a situation is, and what healthy masculinity might look like in such a situation. There are also questions to be asked of restraint and discipline even if one is wronged, and they’re valid no doubt.
But the conversation as it stands is already taking place upon a series of unchecked assumptions. Key amongst them is the assumption that Will Smith initiated the violence. Hence, even while people are condemning Chris Rock’s actions, they are insisting that ‘violence is never the answer’. Perhaps.
But what is the question to which violence is responding?
We can only say that Will Smith initiated the violence if we suppose that language is not, and cannot, be violent, which itself rests upon a narrow definition of violence as material.
But this is not universally true.
While the idea that language is not violent, and violence is material, has taken a firm hold in today’s discourses, particularly liberal discourses, I don’t find the evidence for it very strong, and, at the very least, it is beyond doubt that it’s not a universal position.
Given that this understanding of language and violence is not universally accepted and experienced, it’s essential that the discussion first debate the actual premises and foundations of the discussion, rather than assuming them. At the moment, these positions on language and violence are assumptions being made in this debate, not positions that are being evidenced and justified. This is obviously having a profound impact on the debate. If we positioned Chris Rock as having initiated the violence, and Will Smith as responding to it, the language of the debate and subsequent judgement would necessarily shift. They might both still be condemned for their action, but it would be impossible to reach the same conclusions we’re currently reaching, because the framing of the entire encounter is different.
This assumption that language is not violent is mostly unacknowledged. If it is being acknowledged at all, it’s relying upon ‘common-sense’ slogans and sayings, such as ‘violence is never acceptable’, which is an idealistic and non-universal position that only holds true for committed pacifists, or simple verses such as “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But this is simply a nursery rhyme, not a well-grounded philosophy, and while I understand that it’s being used as shorthand to make a particular point, it strikes me, like the first slogan, as more of an ideal and strategy for building resilience than it does as a simple and uncontested truth, as it’s currently being used. Importantly, both these slogans are relying upon located understandings that are common not because they’re necessarily true, but because that’s what the prevailing ideology holds to be true. There’s a substantial difference.
It’s well-known for example, that liberals generally understand and experience language as representational, i.e., it points at something, and hence they are often found measuring language in terms of offence and not violence. This is much of what we’re seeing play out in this debate: ‘yes, what Chris did was highly offensive and wrong, but it shouldn’t lead to violence.’
The understanding of violence that is likewise common is based largely on John Stuart Mill’s ‘Harm Principle’, which limits harm/injury (what I’m calling violence) to the material and measurable, and which likewise rests on a particular subservience to state law for legitimacy, and which operates within a risk society that approaches governance as (partially) an exercise in risk-management … you can see where I’m going with this.
These understandings are all operating within a certain tradition, or, more accurately, a convergence of multiple traditions. Each different tradition produces different subjectivities (think identities) through which we experience reality. The fact that these traditions and subjectivities are today dominant and considered common-sense has no bearing on their accuracy, truthfulness or universality. In other words, these are not universal understandings or experiences of reality.
By way of example, let me demonstrate very quickly through my own tradition the production of a subjectivity that experiences language as not merely offensive, but as carrying the potential to be violent.
One of the earliest trainings of a Muslim (meaning, the production of their subjectivity), is their training in “brotherhood”, which is a visceral solidarity or symbiosis. This notion of relating intimately to others is taught very early on in Islamic schooling, and generally cuts across sectarian divides in their processes of moral habituation. It’s what Muslims are commonly known for, their embodied solidarity with the Ummah.
It’s summarised well in the following prophetic traditions that are commonly used as part of this training:
“The believers, in their love, mutual kindness, and close ties, are like one body; when any part complains, the whole body responds to it with wakefulness and fever”;
“The Muslims are like a single man. If the eye is afflicted, the whole body is afflicted. If the head is afflicted, the whole body is afflicted”; and
“Verily, the believer among the people of faith is in the position of the head to the body. The believer feels pain for the people of faith, just as the body feels pain in its head.”
There are others, but these should suffice to show that the Islamic subject that’s being produced is symbiotically connected to others; they don’t simply identify with their community, they physically feel the pain of another. This is a literal, and not a metaphorical feeling.
This symbiotic relationship is exemplified by the ideal relationship a Muslim is called to embody towards their prophet. Talal Asad sums it up well:
[Within this tradition] Muhammad is regarded as a moral exemplar whose words and deeds are understood not so much as commandments but as ways of inhabiting the world, bodily and ethically. Those who profess love for the Prophet do not simply follow his advice and admonitions to the umma, but also try to emulate how he dressed; what he ate; how he spoke to his friends and adversaries; how he slept, walked, and so on. These mimetic ways of realizing the Prophet’s behaviour are lived not as commandments, but as virtues where one wants to ingest, as it were, the Prophet’s persona into oneself.
The Islamic subjectivity being described here hence oscillates between relational symbiosis as the basis, and osmosis/assimilation as the ideal.
Language comes into this because, although it doesn’t materially cause injury, it has the ability to sever a symbiotic relationship. It has the ability to cause, as the late Saba Mahmood noted, a moral injury. In other words, violence.
How it does this is a much longer and more complex discussion, but is not necessary for the point being made, which is that Muslim subjectivities (can) experience language as violent, and hence the understanding of language as necessarily non-violent is not universal. The idea of non-material injury (such as moral injury) is a point made in other traditions as well, such as certain writings on feminism. One could likewise discuss certain forms of trauma as non-material violence.
On this note, there are also many prophetic instructions on the materiality and harmful potential of language, which, I would suggest, further lends itself to this understanding.
“Verily, the servant may speak a single word for which he plummets into the Hellfire farther than the distance between East and West.”;
“When the son of Adam wakes up in the morning, all of his limbs defer to the tongue and they say: Fear Allah regarding us, for we are only a part of you. If you are upright, we are upright. If you are crooked, we are crooked.”; and, perhaps the most explicit in this regard:
“They said, “O Messenger, of Allah, whose Islam is best?” The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “One from whose tongue and hand Muslims are safe.”
The tongue here is positioned as more than a vehicle of representation, but rather as possessing an agency of its own relative to other limbs, and, especially in the final instruction, on the same spectrum as the hand in its capacity to render harm. In this sense, it has the potential to sever the symbiotic (or osmotic) relationship that Muslims are called to embody.
This is most explicitly seen in cases of legal excommunication (takfeer), where a member is cast out of the symbiotic community through the issuing of a legal verdict (language). Experiences of blasphemy arguably follow a similar logic.
There is of course a much deeper level to this, which is that to speak (to use language) necessitates an “I” who speaks, and the I necessarily severs (does violence to) the unification that is our natural disposition (fitrah). But that’s a discussion for another day.
Is Language Violent?
Where does this leave us regarding the now-infamous slap?
It would not at all be farfetched to suggest that Will and Jada share a symbiotic relationship that was violently affected by the language of the joke made against her. Symbiotic relationships are not restricted to Muslims, after all.
But what this means for the judgement cast against a few famous actors having a scuffle is of no great importance to me, if I’m honest. But the principles that it draws out are crucial. On a personal (and symbiotic) level, for 20 years, Muslims have similarly been cast as initiators of violence under the War on Terror. We have largely been unable to address the accusations cast against us (to act from our own traditions) because the assumptions underpinning the accusation are not even acknowledged, let alone up for debate. We know the violations that has engendered. Again, it’s something that many other groups have drawn attention to in their own experiences with language and violence.
We are all inter-subjective beings and we absorb each other’s energies; none of us are isolated units or ‘individuals’ who ‘choose’ what we interact with. We necessarily exchange the energies of our surroundings, and our surroundings are not limited to physical space. Words are also energies (literally carried on a breath, for example), and as such are absorbed and hence impactful, with the potential for that impact to be violent.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all experienced the hurt of words, whether as children or adults, or both. Within many therapeutic sciences, it is undeniable that words not only can hurt, but can literally traumatise. If I reflect upon my own experiences of healing from childhood trauma, when I delved into the deepest parts of my traumatised self, peeling back one layer of injury after another, at the very base of this traumatised self was an injury caused by a single word. This not only resulted in violence, in the forms of self-harm and similar, but was itself a violent experience of disconnection, or severing. It was the violence of language.
We experience reality through the particular selfhood that we have formed, and many of those selfhoods experience language as potentially violent. To deny the hurt and injury that words can inflict is to deny the subjective experiences born out of certain ways of being. It is to say that there is only one way to be human in this world, and there is only one way to experience language and violence. That’s untrue. It is also to render invisible a certain type of violence that is actively causing harm. That's aiding oppression.
To deny the violent capacity of language is to deny the relativity of human experience. It is, inversely, to violently limit our own experience of reality.
 Reference.  Reference.  Reference.  Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler and Saba Mahmood, Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury and Free Speech, California, Fordham University Press, 2013, p. 69.  Reference.  Reference.  Reference.