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Speech Does Not Equate Violence

Is speech tantamount to violence? From my perspective, the answer is a firm no.

By Paige HollowayPublished 4 months ago 4 min read
Speech Does Not Equate Violence
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Emotional and Physical Harm

The power of speech is indisputable. Words have the potential to soothe or distress, to uplift or deflate, to enlighten or confound. Indeed, the effect of speech can be profound and far-reaching, causing emotional turbulence and psychological stress. However, as we delve into this complex dialogue, it is vital to differentiate between emotional distress and physical harm — a distinction that often blurs when speech is labeled as violence.

Let’s consider an example. The realm of comedy is often rife with controversial and provocative punchlines. Comedians, in their bid to provoke laughter, can sometimes offend or upset certain audience members. But can we classify these instances as violent acts? Surely, the answer is no. Despite the emotional discomfort they might cause, these words don’t physically harm the listener. They may leave a metaphorical bruise on one’s feelings, but they don’t cause actual bruises or bodily harm.

Then we have the whirlwind that is social media, a virtual arena where words fly fast and free. The harmful words exchanged during online feuds or cyberbullying can indeed wound feelings, leading to distress, embarrassment, or even psychological harm. However, again, the impact here is emotional, not physical, and categorizing it as violence stretches the definition of violence beyond its traditional boundaries (Boyd, 2014).

Alternative Viewpoint: Defining Speech as Violence

Nevertheless, it’s crucial to acknowledge the alternative viewpoint. Some individuals argue that if harmful speech can cause significant distress, it should be considered a form of violence. They point to instances where hate speech has incited violent acts or where persistent cyberbullying has led to devastating outcomes, even suicide, in some cases. Indeed, these examples are a sobering reminder of the power that words can wield and the serious, sometimes irreversible, consequences they can have.

These perspectives are vital to our conversation, highlighting the darker side of speech’s power. They remind us of our responsibility to use our words wisely and considerately. They compel us to consider how we can create a society where speech is used as a tool for positivity and progress, rather than a weapon of harm.

Distinguishing Impact and Consequences

However, despite these valid concerns, it is essential to separate the impacts of harmful speech and physical violence, as per expert research. Studies conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA, 2015), highlight that the effects of harmful speech, while severe, are distinct from the trauma resulting from physical violence.

Harmful speech can result in emotional turmoil and psychological stress. It can cause sadness, anger, fear, and even lead to long-term psychological issues, such as anxiety and depression. However, physical violence goes a step further. It is a direct, forceful act that inflicts physical harm. It can result in immediate physical injuries and long-term physical and psychological trauma.

This distinction is not a minor semantic discrepancy. It is a critical differentiation, emphasized by Daniel Kahneman in his seminal work, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (2011). Kahneman highlights that the nature and aftermath of physical violence and the psychological harm caused by speech are different in fundamental ways. While both are harmful and demand our attention and efforts towards prevention, equating the two can lead to an oversimplification of the complexities and nuances involved in both.

A Threat to Free Speech?

As we endeavor to create safer spaces, both in person and online, we must tread cautiously to avoid unintentionally eroding the foundations of our democratic rights, most notably, the right to free speech. If we begin to categorize speech as violence, we venture into a precarious domain where expressing a dissenting opinion or an unpopular viewpoint could potentially lead to legal repercussions under the guise of ‘violence.’ This potential scenario stands starkly against the principles of democratic discourse (Post, 2018).

Yet, the safeguarding of free speech should not be used as an excuse to enable harmful speech. The challenge lies in striking a balance between preserving the right to free speech and preventing harmful speech that can cause significant distress. It’s a delicate balancing act, but it’s a necessary one to ensure that the democratic dialogue continues in a respectful, inclusive, and considerate manner.


As we continue to navigate the complexities of speech and its impact, it is vital to ensure that our efforts to mitigate harm do not lead us to label speech as violence. Such a categorization risks oversimplifying two complex issues and diluting the gravity of physical violence. Instead, our energies would be better spent fostering a culture of understanding, empathy, and open dialogue. In such a culture, words can serve as bridges of understanding, rather than weapons of harm.

This conversation, like all dialogues, is not a monologue. It’s now time to hear from you. Do you think the divide between speech and violence is as clear-cut as I’ve described? Are there areas of ambiguity that warrant further discussion and exploration? Please share your thoughts and experiences. They are a vital part of this ongoing dialogue, contributing to our collective understanding of this complex issue.


Boyd, D. (2014). “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.” Yale University Press.

American Psychological Association (APA). (2015). “The Effects of Trauma, Violence and Abuse.”

Kahneman, D. (2011). “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Post, R. (2018). “Hate Speech and Democratic Citizenship.” Oxford University Press.

controversiespop culturepoliticsactivism

About the Creator

Paige Holloway

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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  • L.C. Schäfer4 months ago

    Firmly agree. Speech is not violence, and its not helpful to label it as such.

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