Can Words Kill?

12 December 2017

Can words kill? You might think that the obvious answer is that words don’t kill—people do! And, people don’t even kill with words, they kill with bombs and guns.

But is there some sense in words can be just as deadly as a gun or a bomb? I don’t mean that in a metaphorical sense. We all can admit that words can hurt or offend. But I’m asking if they can literally kill?

Consider how the words that the Nazis used to torment their Jewish victims, or the words the Hutu used on the Tutsi. They did more than merely incite violence against those targeted. Their words were instruments of violence. In the mouths of genocidal killers and their henchmen, words can be every bit as deadly as a machete.

Now, obviously words can’t literally suffocate or cut a throat. They don’t kill through physical force. But they do kill through representational force. Think about the way the Nazi genocide unfolded. They started with latent anti-Semitism, then their propaganda transformed Jews from fellow citizens to subhuman vermin. Of course, the genocide took more than words. If they had stopped at words, they wouldn’t have been genocidal killers. But 1930s Germany was a loaded gun. Using those words was pulling the trigger of a loaded gun. So using propaganda in that context was committing genocide.

You might disagree and claim that representations can’t be acts of genocide all on their own. Until somebody moves beyond representation and acts—until they wield the machete or turn the knob—they haven’t committed genocide. But recall those Hutu journalists in Rwanda who engaged in hate radio. They were found guilty of actual genocide—not just of aiding and abetting those who wielded the machetes. Why? Because the International Tribunal for Rwanda recognized something really important: you don’t have to wield a machete to be a killer. In the right context, it’s enough to represent someone else as a subhuman cockroach. In one case you’re perpetrating physical violence. But in the other you’re perpetrating representational violence.  

Does violence have to be physical in order to be genuine violence? Is representational violence real violence, or just metaphorical violence? If you ask the victims of this demeaning, degrading, dehumanizing language, you’ll get one answer. It’s very real violence. But not everyone will agree, not because they deny how dangerous that kind of language can be—it certainly hurts and offends, it poisons politics, and it gives people license to do all manner of horrible things to one another. But if you accept that much, then why deny that representational violence is a real thing?

The question we started with was whether words can kill. If I haven’t managed to convince you of this possibility, that language can literally kill, let me make one more point. This distinction between metaphorical killing and literal killing seems to depend on a distinction that you might think is unproblematic, that between words and action. But according to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s picture of language games, that distinction is not so clear. What gives a word its meaning is not a fact given in isolation—it is deeply bound up with the way we act, with our “forms of life.” What gives the word “chair” its meaning, for example, is that we interact with the things we call “chairs” in specific way, by sitting on them. If a “chair” was something we never sat on, it would not mean what our current word “chair” means. How we interact with the object is part of its meaning. Sitting on something we call a "chair" is a final move in the game.

You might wonder what this has to do with genocide and words that kill. So, think of a genocidal act as the final move in a complex language game. The game starts with dehumanizing representations. These representations shape perception and thought, then these perceptions and thoughts culminate in murder. So when the Hutu called Tutsis  “cockroaches,” where cockroaches are the type of disgusting creature that ought to be crushed and exterminated, they were using words to license that move in the language game. They were saying that a Tutsi is the kind of disgusting creature that ought to be exterminated, which is what they then did. And that’s how words can kill.

Comments (4)

uncle_arvin's picture


Thursday, December 14, 2017 -- 9:40 PM

If words can kill, then so

If words can kill, then so can a look. Language is but a small part of human communication. Expressions, gesture, are less able to be faked by people. My disdain is expressed even if i do not speak. You can feel it by my choice of microexpressions, which i am ill-equipped to control, can you not? Therefore if words are lethal so are looks. You bark at shadows.

Coraroma's picture


Thursday, December 14, 2017 -- 9:52 PM

What do your guests think

What do your guests think about the use of trigger warnings in the social media setting, where there is a expectation that any topic that could potentially be harmful to someone must be marked TW to warn readers? And what of the expectation itself? That we should constantly try to anticipate any potential harm? Are people at fault for harm caused (when they didn't intend to harm)? Say mentioning a describing an experience with a mean family member, then being critiqued for not posting " TW: Abuse" ?

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, December 21, 2017 -- 12:48 PM

Whether or not words are (or

Whether or not words are (or CAN be) lethal depends largely upon whether they have strong attachment(s) to belief systems. A prime example of this has to do with cult connections, such a a belief in voodoo or, perhaps, Santaria. Those few(?) who continue to be influenced by these "black arts" can be persuaded to die, if A. their belief is deeply seated in B. what continues to be what Jaynes called a bicameral mind. These circumstances are probably next to extinct. However, they would seem to illustrate the potentiality for such a willful dealing of death. What the mind imagines, the man can do. It's not for everyone...probably a good thing, that. This is anecdotal stuff, of course. But there is a wealth of it out there.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, March 14, 2021 -- 2:05 PM

It has been some years since

It has been some years since my last remarks on this topic. Those preceded an administration, the likes of which I hope, we shall never see again. My own notion has morphed. But not so much. The whole issue of free speech has been forever altered. Harris', and others' notions of free-will, are attaining obsolescence. I think, just think, the scenario is shifting. This means there are indications ( at least) of an egregious 'something' we have no knowledge of, experience with, or notion of dealing with. Words kill us everyday. They have always killed. And this is just the point, if we adhere to the first amendment guarantees., we must accept the attendant contingencies. Yawn. I'll work on it. Still thinking. Bet ter, I hope. Trying harder, yes. Doing the best I can with what I've got. And what I know. And, just so. Come on.people. stop spinning. That is for fishing, Not reality..