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Slaps VS Jokes at the Oscars

By Hazem Zohny

Most of us draw a strict-ish line between actions that physically hurt and words that psychologically hurt. This is especially so when violence is used in response to words – hence the near universal condemnation of Will Smith’s cringey Oscars interruption. A slap is deemed a pathetic response to a joke, or any assortment of words for that matter (in some cultures anyway – blasphemy and certain other utterances can get you legally killed in some places).

But is there something intrinsically worse about physical violence compared to words that (we will assume) hurt? I have a strong intuition that violence is indeed inherently worse than words that hurt, but I wonder how easy it is to appeal to some principled basis to ground that claim. I’m not sure.

Below are some contenders that might justify that claim. They are by no means exhaustive. I’ll use the terms ‘harm’, ‘hurt’ and ‘pain’ colloquially and somewhat interchangeably, which is to say imprecisely. I suspect most of us can agree that something can be overall bad for someone, and that this badness can be cashed out in bodily or psychological impact – hopefully that’s sufficient here. I’ll use violence to refer to physically hurting others and ‘words that hurt’ for the psychological pain resulting from certain words.

Degree of pain?

Is there something intrinsic to violence that means it inflicts more pain than words that hurt? There is clearly a vast spectrum here on both fronts, from a pinch to a being burned alive, and from a micro-aggressive “why is your accent like that?” to being told by your partner about their constant infidelity thanks to your sexual inadequacy.

At the extremes, what could possibly be worse than being slowly burned alive? Perhaps recipients of the worst long-term emotional abuse may beg to differ. But, while this may be an apples-to-oranges mis-comparison, at a minimum I think we can say that, at least for slaps, kicks and punches, it’s not clear that physical pain is necessarily worse or greater than the psychological pain caused by words that hurt. I’d that bet if we compared how people reported their experience of pain from a punch versus being told by a parent or loved one that they are a deep, deep disappointment, the latter for most would be rated more hurtful or painful (or, more generally, a worse overall experience.)

A counter here might be that violence will typically also lead to psychological pain, as one might relive getting slapped or kicked over and over, continuing to suffer each time. But words that hurt can also cause further trauma as the incident is recalled, and can even cause physical symptoms via the stress of that experience.

So it doesn’t look like degree of pain, on its own, can give us a principled basis for making a general claim about the inherently greater badness of violence versus words that hurt.

Risk of escalation?

We might say violence opens the door to escalation in a way that words do not. A slap can lead to a punch, and a punch can lead to a loss balance and knocking one’s head on a concrete floor/dying. Words have a much lower harm ceiling.

But it’s not clear that words that hurt don’t invite violence any less than violence invites more violence – people (typically men) just as readily respond to provocative words with violence as they do to violence itself. Which is to say there is no clear limit to the harms of words that hurt since these can escalate to violence just as easily as violence can escalate to more violence.

Nevertheless, if violence really, really escalates, and more and more people are drawn in, and we end up with a civil war (or class or race or neighbourhood war), that would be pretty bad. Culture wars, even with all their insidiousness, seem comparatively tame. It is perhaps, then, a wariness of the potential for violence between two individuals to infect a community and beyond that motivates us to draw this distinction.

But I don’t think this provides the principled basis we’re looking for – we tend to think violence is worse than words that hurt even when there is no possibility of escalation. Perhaps this suggests we only condemn violence more than words that hurt for deterrence purposes (i.e. to discourage others from participating or copying), rather than because a single instance of it is in some sense intrinsically worse than an equivalent instance of hurtful words.

The role of intention?

One seeming difference between the two is that when an individual physically hurts another, their intentions seem a lot clearer than when they use words that hurt others. To slap or punch someone, outside unusual and consensual circumstances, will typically reflect an intention to hurt them. With words, things are murkier: it’s easy to hurt another’s feelings without any intention of doing so (indeed, one may intend the words to cheer them up!).

But this seems to point only to an epistemological limitation of those judging an action than some in-principle difference between violence and words that hurt. It doesn’t look like it can play the role we’re looking for to justify that distinction we typically make between the two.

Responsibility for hurt?

We can more easily point to the physical harms caused by violence compared to the psychological ones caused by words. Being physically attacked typically leaves marks, and by and large we tend to agree about the badness of those marks. Less so when it comes to words: often we can’t see the hurt and more crucially we can always ask whether those words should have been hurtful to begin with, and whether you are simply too thin-skinned.

That is, we can always debate whether certain words justifiably caused someone hurt, regardless of the offender’s intentions. This is because we think people have more control over what words they find hurtful in contrast to how their bodies react to being assaulted. People can be resilient in the face of words that hurt, but a punch is a punch. We can also often simply leave the area if someone is being hurtful with their words (not an option if someone is pinning you down and punching you).

This seems a promising difference, but I’m not so sure it holds. Requiring people to simply “choose” to be more resilient in the face of words they find hurtful is as silly as requiring people to choose not stumble after a hard punch to the face. That’s just not how minds work. Resilience isn’t a button in the dashboard of the mind that one can press at will . Nonetheless, we might still say the burden is on the most thin-skinned to become resilient rather than on others to constantly walk on egg shells all time (indeed that might be one way to ensure no one ever develops resilience.)

This might go a long way in explaining why we usually condemn violence much more than words that hurt, but I’m not sure it provides us with that principled basis we’re looking for.


Put together, it’s not looking promising we can find a nice, principled basis for the general claim that violence is in some sense intrinsically worse than words that hurt. More likely it is closer to something like our use of age in the law: there is no magical property that 16 or 18 year olds suddenly develop when they blow out candles on a cake, but those are ages that broadly correlate with various things we think are important or relevant, at least for most individuals around that age. The same for violence: it’s easy to identify (like age) and there’s typically less to debate about its badness. But violence and words that hurt likely rest on a continuum with vast grey areas that make it unlikely we can distinguish the two via some overriding principle.

I suspect this is true of most things in ethics.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. Very interesting post, actually the only interesting thing I have seen amongst all the screeds of column inches devoted to this incident

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