Can words be violent?

I have spent my life working for civil rights, social justice, and freedom of expression, but at that moment I was just thirsty. I felt the sudden deflation of what had been a very pleasant evening. It made me feel sad… and old. An old, tired “snowflake,” as right-wingers have taken to calling anyone with feelings. I started to explain to my friend what a “snowflake” was, but he reminded me that Milo Yiannopoulos is a Brit. He knew all about that.

Milo, of course, is the former Breitbart editor who angered a crowd at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, by mocking a transgender student by name, all the while using a so-called “trigger cam” to live-stream the faces of students in the audience framed within a telescopic gun’s crosshairs. Yiannopoulos shrugged off the distress his antics caused with a sneering dismissiveness: “[They] said I had used violent words, as though violent words were a thing.”

To be fair, I don’t believe that violent words are “a thing,” either. Neither words nor iconography like swastikas or flags—or portraits, for that 
matter—are bats or guns or machetes. But it’s a conceptual mistake to pass off the gloating threat of a fork up the ass as performative passion. If we call people “garbage,” “parasites,” “cunts,” “dicks,” “niggers,” “pussies,” “apes,” “kikes,” “dykes,” or “towelheads”—if we laugh about it, if we chant such words at rallies, if we take them in deeply by sheer repetition alone, then our vision changes. Our hearts shrink. Our exclusions grow meaner and more marked, our laws much more punitive.