The death a few days ago of Muhammad Ali, an icon of boxing as well as racial equality, reminds me and others of something that you too may have noticed: how violent language is increasingly being used to describe disagreement.

One public figure criticizing another is “attacking” or “bashing” the other. When somebody’s reasoning is rebutted, they’ve been “dismantled” or “destroyed.” And we all know how people who are mild-mannered in real life can and do become veritable hunting tigers online.

What’s going on with that? Tom Hoopes, writer-in-residence at Benedictine College, has a theory.

He starts by noting that, if words shape our thoughts—and they do, to some extent—then “we are all boxers now.” Few indeed within the popular (as distinct from academic) media are immune from the trend. As a Catholic working at a Catholic institution, he recounts how even “the Church” is not immune.

Thus he opines:

“It may be that our over-hyped media environment is at fault. Ever since newspapers had to sell papers to make money, headline writers have been looking for the harshest verbs possible to describe everything we do.”

That’s a partial explanation. In an era when more and more news and opinion-mongering clamors for our limited attention, clickbait becomes even more economically important to content providers. Violent metaphors provide such help, if you can call it help.

But we may be getting desensitized to that. In any case, Hoopes theorizes that the problem runs much deeper:

“These terms come from relativism. If ‘my truth’ is as true as “your truth” then our disagreement truly is no longer about our common pursuit of ‘the truth.’ You are threatening what is mine and to protect myself I must lash out at what is yours.”

And it will only get worse.

In a world where truth is not objective reality that we all must honor but subjective possession that we each must protect, ultimately whoever is most powerful controls the truth and our discussions are no longer dispassionate intellectual exercises; they are passionate power struggles.”

I think he’s undeniably right that many of our discussions are no longer discussions but power struggles.

You can see it in campus PC-talk of “microaggressions,” “trigger warnings,” and the need for “safe spaces” to insulate oneself from ideas one finds off-putting. You can see it in the ongoing struggles of “identity politics” put on display in “the poisonous cult of intersectional feminism”—where one can find bitter, intricate competition for status of being “more oppressed than thou,” and therefore worthy of more special protection and treatment. You can see it in the insistence that “transgender” people must be allowed to use bathrooms and compete on teams of their choice, regardless of contrary views, sensibilities, and needs that were considered perfectly normal and unexceptionable a decade ago.

Everything seems to be morphing into a power struggle. That’s because our society is no longer held together by any moral or philosophical consensus. There isn’t even any common public vocabulary to express ideas and truths that might undergird such a consensus.

So people feel threatened and struggle against one another. Violent language is both a symptom and a cause of that.

[Image Credit: Pixabay-Public Domain]