Yes, words can cause harm

[ETA] I’ve made a few clarifying edits in response to early feedback, discussing some of my writing mishakes. All are clearly marked, and all of the original text is still present. Thanks to those who told me they had read something other than what I intended to write.

[ETA] I’ve been convinced to make a list of abstracted examples. See Appendix I in the comments section.

⚠️ Content Warning: The territory pointed to in this post can be extremely challenging to navigate skillfully.

Quoted below in full is the About This Document section of a short essay I wrote some time ago about the ways words can cause harm to people.

On more than one occasion, I’ve been asked to explain why I suggested that my interlocutor should be more careful with their words. «Words are just wiggly air or patterns of light and dark; I can’t produce any string of words that can hurt you without your consent,» goes the argument.

I’ve given a short answers that stuck very closely to the context of the conversations. On one recent occasion, I began compiling a “So, you still don’t buy it” list. This would consist of examples of words and phrases that might cause harm, since examples are often the fastest and easiest way to show things to people.

Two minutes later, I noticed the obvious information hazard and deleted the list in horror.

After about an hour’s frantic thought, I tried again. This time, I planned to produce a lightly structured document with categories and explanations. There would be only a single example for each category, carefully selected to exemplify a certain kind of harm, but applicable only to a very narrow range of circumstances.

I deleted that list before it even finished taking shape. Likewise the list that followed with examples selected from popular fiction.

Nevertheless, I still felt that if the question of how words could cause harm was being asked, it was important to be able to discuss the answer. And the short statement, “words and symbols are causal mental objects capable of producing or promoting harm to any number of entity classes in a wide variety of contexts,” seemed unlikely to convey the full scope and gravity of the problem, or even to be particularly convincing on its own. So I wrestled with how to present the whole thing ethically. I wrote a draft of this document and held off on posting it for a week to see if I still felt OK publishing it after that time.

I didn’t. And even after many hours spent trying over several weeks, I wasn’t able to write that essay in a way that made me comfortable publishing.

Instead, I’ll propose a mechanism for how harm—or benefit—can causally flow from the words we choose to express. I’ve deliberately offered no [concrete] examples whatsoever Appendix I, only a brief examination of how change (including harmful change) might follow from a chain of causes containing at least one linguistic link.

[ETA] To clarify, my goal here is only to refute the claim that “words can’t cause harm”. And, as I think that this discussion can be very easy to mishandle, I’ve written this post to a much higher standard of non-harming than I usually aim for. It is absolutely not my intention to imply that the community as a whole is failing at appropriate speech.

Words are one medium humans use to share symbols representing thoughts between one mind and another. They have low fidelity, to be sure, but under the right conditions they are able to cause part of one mind to become different in response to part of another mind.

Thoughts, including those induced by words, can be causal in at least two modes. They can trigger an urge to act a certain way, and they can help set the stage for those urges to be more or less likely to arise or to be acted on. Urges that are acted on can result in harm in all the obvious ways, and also in many other ways that are far more subtle. Stage-setting thoughts can collectively adjust a mind to be more likely to produce or choose to act on harmful urges, or less likely to produce or choose to act on beneficial urges; establish or contribute to the conditions for trauma; and trigger or exacerbate existing traumatic conditions.

Thoughts induced by words can be seen by other parts of the mind as evidence for or against certain beliefs, regardless of the veracity of the beliefs themselves. This might even result in a positive feedback loop where strong beliefs (that can result in strong urges) spin up out of basically nothing repeated back and forth endlessly between different parts of the mind. Such beliefs might become extremely difficult to dislodge due to repetition.

Fortunately, it is also true that we can also accomplish the opposite by careful application of the same means. Through our words, actions, and other symbols, we can transmit thoughts that promote more beneficial urges, and that help set the stage for a mind that is less likely to produce harmful actions or ideas. We can encourage minds that take the time to carefully respond instead of violently reacting to stressful or dangerous situations. We can help create conditions that make minds more resilient against trauma.

It’s also important to make a quick note about causality. From what I’ve seen, most minds have protections in place to make them robust against perturbation. This also seems to be evident in the literature. Just look at any list of biases to see that human minds, at least, seem to be structured to resist change. That said, sometimes unexpectedly small causes can produce large cascades of massive change. As far as I can tell, this can really only occur if the system happens to be unstable in just the right way for that particular cause. Unfortunately, our minds sometimes get themselves into just such a state. When they do, what seems like a tiny thing can result in a downward spiral of self destruction with truly unfortunate consequences for everybody with the misfortune of being involved. That’s why I deleted every version of this post before I committed to using zero explicit examples: you can never tell what tiny thing might set somebody down that path.

[ETA] But I don’t think that should lead to paralysis, or excessive caution. It’s important to be aware of these things, while still getting on with the business of actually being a causal agent in the world. Most humans are pretty robust, and can tollerate a few mistakes. I should have made that clearer in the original text. Even so, the entire point isn’t as close to topic as it could have been, leading to misunderstandings as to the intent of the essay. Again, my goal was to refute the claim that “words can not cause harm”, nothing more.

⚠️ Fair warning, if any [concrete] examples of words that might cause harm show up in the comments, they run an extremely high risk of moderation on the basis that such an example is made of words that were chosen because they might cause harm. If you are unsure, at least hide the questionable phrases behind spoiler protection.

That said, it is important that we are able to discuss this topic. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t have bothered figuring out how to write this post as ethically as possible for publication.

If you choose to comment, please be especially careful with your words.