This essay serves as the introductory essay for this special issue on “The Rhetoric of Violence.” In conversation with the six other essays in this special issue, I suggest that scholars in our field need to focus more explicitly on the rhetorical purposes of physical violence. To support that suggestion, I offer a working definition of how we might conceptualize violence broadly and then distinguish physical violence from two others kinds that rhetorical scholars have been studying for years now—rhetorical violence and structural violence. Distinguishing that first mode of violence as worthy of more of our attention. I then argue that the primary purpose of most physical violence is to affectively and symbolically define and reinforce individual and group identities.

People have a strong tendency to want to dismiss violence as senseless. In the afternoon of May 14, 2022, an 18-year-old white man walked into a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York and opened fire with a Bushmaster XM-15 semi-automatic rifle, shooting 13 people—11 Black people and two white, leaving ten of them dead. The following evening, President Joe Biden tweeted, “Jill and I will travel to Buffalo on Tuesday to grieve with the community that lost ten lives in a senseless and horrific mass shooting.”1 Just days later, an 18-year-old Hispanic American walked into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas with a Daniel Defense DDM4 V7 semi-automatic rifle and killed nineteen students and two teachers, with another seventeen people injured. Covering the aftermath of the shooting, NPR reported that the tragedy had “revived interest in preventing such senseless violence.”2 Just over a month after the Uvalde shooting, on July 4, 2022, a white, 21-year-old man attacked an Independence Day parade in Highland Park, Illinois, positioning himself on a rooftop with a Smith & Wesson M&P15 semi-automatic rifle. Seven people died in that shooting and dozens more were injured. The following day while visiting Highland Park, Vice President Kamala Harris opened her remarks with condolences before quickly adding, “This should never have happened. We talk about it being senseless; it is senseless. It is absolutely senseless.”3 At the same time these shootings were being described as meaningless, leaders from around the world, including Pope Francis and the United Kingdom's Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, were decrying Russia's invasion of Ukraine as a “senseless war.”4

It is perhaps understandable that physical acts of force, from mass shootings to military invasions, are regularly described as senseless violence. Despite the continued prevalence of physical violence all around us, most modern societies present at least an image of being committed to reason, law, and order. Of course, it is in the best interest of those in power to make everyone believe that physical violence is senseless; otherwise, people might force change and even seek new leadership so that the death and destruction stops, or at least decreases.5 Indeed, it is central to the idea of civilized societies that civility be the norm, and only the state retains the right to use violence when it is necessary to stop acts of incivility. Given that, it makes sense that people perceive most physical violence as senseless, but that thinking is both dangerous and wrong. It is dangerous because treating physical violence as senseless means never really attending to its underlying causes. It is wrong because most physical violence has a purpose, and that purpose is, as I argue in this essay, rhetorical. Indeed, to combat the dangers inherent in the idea of senseless violence, I believe we need more scholarship that directly engages the nature and scope of physical violence's rhetorical purposes.

I am admittedly not the first person to address this need. In 1978, Craig A. Hosterman, then an Assistant Professor of Communication Arts at Indiana University, published an essay in Communicator, a journal of the Northwest Communication Association, titled “The Rhetoric of Violence.” In that essay, Hosterman works from the assumption that “violence has long been perceived as a social problem-solver, as a tool for instituting necessary political, economic, and social change.”6 Beginning there, Hosterman then asserts that “violence can be rhetorical” before noting that violence alone does not typically cause significant change—a nod toward acknowledging that we humans primarily understand the world discursively. Given violence's rhetorical potential, Hosterman then argues that there are five “basic communication functions” that violence can have for the violent perpetrator(s) and others: it can unify people; it can divide people through polarization; it can create greater visibility for groups and their concerns; it can demonstrate the intensity one feels toward a cause; and it can induce a response from others, including decision-makers.7 After exploring each of those functions, Hosterman then notes plainly that “there is little evidence to suggest that violence, as a tool of communication, is on any kind of permanent decline.”8 Because violence did not seem to be disappearing from the public sphere, Hosterman concluded his essay with a call that while violence “should not be condoned . . . some effort should be made to understand its effectiveness and minimize its impact.”9 Indeed, Hosterman imagined that scholars in the field of rhetoric might collectively “generate an extensive and coherent body of literature dealing with violence as a significant form of communication, something evidently lacking at the present time.”10

I must confess I know nothing of Professor Hosterman. The publishing record indicates that he never followed up on his own call to generate further research on the rhetoric of violence. Nor does it seem that the field of rhetoric paid much attention to the words of an assistant professor that appeared in a small regional journal. While unsurprising, this is unfortunate. With just a few exceptions that I discuss below, the field of rhetoric has produced scant work that focuses explicitly on the physical violence that concerned Hosterman. Instead, as I detail below, when rhetorical scholars have turned their attention to violence, they have instead focused on rhetorical violence and/or structural violence.11 While these are certainly important areas of research, there remains a dearth of scholarship on understanding how humans use physical violence rhetorically.

Given that lack of scholarship, I sent out the call for this special issue, which asked for work that was attempting to “understand how violence—physical violence, which is meant to denote the deliberate exercise of physical force against a person, property, or structure—actually works.” In issuing the call, I sought to make a distinction between physical violence and both rhetorical violence and structural violence. Whether or not I made that distinction clear enough, it turned out that finding scholars focused specifically on the rhetoric of physical violence proved difficult. Indeed, not all the excellent work presented in this special issue does so as explicitly as I had first envisioned. One of the essays openly rejects a distinction between physical violence and symbolic or structural violence and then focuses on how physical violence is understood and interpreted before turning to related issues of systemic violence. Even the essays here that do turn more directly to physical violence do not often linger there for too long. Far from being a concern, I find this resistance to focusing explicitly on physical violence an opportunity to think more concretely about how our field can engage in scholarship that explores the rhetorical nature of physical violence.

With that in mind, and in conversation with the other essays in the issue, I use this introductory essay as an opportunity to argue that the primary purpose of most physical violence is to affectively and symbolically define and reinforce individual and group identities. To make that argument, I first start by defining violence because of just how amorphous that term has become. Next, I briefly explore the tripartite categorization of violence—physical, rhetorical, and structural—and acknowledge some of the important work on the latter two that has been done in rhetoric in recent years. Then, I turn to work outside our field, and some that has begun to emerge within it, to demonstrate how physical violence rhetorically defines and reinforces identities. Finally, I return to the call for more research on the rhetoric of violence in the conclusion.

Defining Violence

Given that both rhetoric and violence are contested terms, it seems imperative to define both so as to avoid assertions that I am stretching the two concepts beyond credible bounds. Given the readers of this journal, I will start with the former as that seems the easiest. As I understand it and use it in my own work, rhetoric is human inducement. That is, rhetoric is the study of all the ways that we humans attempt to influence or persuade each other. While others have defined rhetoric as symbolic inducement,12 I use the adjective “human” here to acknowledge that we humans use all of our senses to influence one another. I also use it to limit the scope of rhetoric to human interaction. In doing so, I do not mean to suggest that animals do not also engage in inducement; they certainly do, even symbolically in some instances. Nor do I mean to suggest that non-human phenomena do not induce humans, such as the sound of thunder convincing me that I should reschedule my run for later. Instead, I simply think that human inducement is worthy of its own area of study. As for violence, a few more words are in order.

One of the difficulties involved with writing about violence is that the term can be incredibly difficult to pin down. After all, as criminologist Willem de Haan has argued, “Nearly all inquiries concerning the phenomenon of violence demonstrate that violence not only takes on many forms and possesses very different characteristics, but also that the current range of definitions is considerable and creates ample controversies concerning the question what violence is and how it ought to be defined.”13 While there are many disagreements about categorizing specific acts as violence, the primary reason for those controversies revolves around scope. Violence can be defined narrowly to focus more directly on its physical effects or more broadly to include anything done to limit the capacity of individuals to live the life they choose. For instance, in his best-selling and widely critiqued The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker assumed a narrow definition. Although he did not even bother to define violence in the book, he did assert after the book's publication that he used “the term in its standard sense, more or less the one you'd find in a dictionary (such as The American Heritage Dictionary Fifth Edition: ‘Behavior or treatment in which physical force is exerted for the purpose of causing damage or injury.’)”14 By contrast, as sociologist Larry Ray has pointed out, the broader definition of violence that has emerged in recent decades can “include anything avoidable that impedes human realization, violates the rights or integrity of the person and is often judged in terms of outcomes rather than intentions.”15 So while scholars who understand violence in its broadest version might see the indifference of politicians to help alleviate the structures of poverty as a form of violence, those committed to a narrower definition would not categorize that lack of action as such. And, of course, there are a host of other definitional possibilities between these two examples.

Given these disagreements over the scope of violence and to avoid falling into the sort of subjectivism made famous by US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's definition of hard-core pornography,—“I know it when I see it”—I offer the following definition of violence from the World Health Organization in their 2002 World Report on Violence and Health: “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation.”16 Written by committee, the definition is not the most succinct. However, it does align quite well with an oft-cited definition from criminologist Elizabeth Stanko, who wrote in 2001 that violence is “any form of behavior by an individual that intentionally threatens to or does cause physical, sexual or psychological harm to others or themselves.”17

Although there are plenty who might disagree with these definitions of violence, they both offer three important aspects that are particularly useful in thinking about violence. First, they both acknowledge that violence is intentional. Such a defining feature does not rule out the violence done through intentional inaction, but it does demarcate violence from accidents and understandable ignorance that often can cause harm. Second, both definitions make plenty of room for violence that happens outside of direct, physical violence. This would include, as I discuss below, the myriad ways people use words and policy to inflict violence on others. Third, both definitions highlight that the threat of violence is violence itself. As any child of an abusive parent knows, the threat of a beating does very real psychological harm, so it seems necessary to acknowledge that when defining violence.

While these definitions of violence both represent the way I generally think about violence and am using the term here, there is one other thing that I think must be acknowledged about how one defines what is and what is not violence. Whatever else it may be, most people think of violence as always already a negative thing. While one might praise an attack or support a person's aggressiveness, on the field or in a debate, few people openly praise violence. That this is the case can easily be seen in language. When police act violently and kill Black men in the United States, they very often argue that they engaged in the use of justifiable force. When nations at war kill civilians, they talk of collateral damage. When a parent spanks their child, they call it discipline. Whatever word they use, almost nobody wants to be seen as engaging in violence because of its inherent negative connotation. And as noted in the opening of this essay, most people do not want violence to have any meaning at all because it is seen as something we modern humans should not do. I acknowledge this here because I fear believing violence is inherently bad or evil can bias the study of it. While I certainly believe we should all be working toward a more just and truthful world in order to alleviate the problems that cause people to turn to violence, I also know that to better understand it we must seek to see violence for what it is.

Three Types of Violence

To better understand what violence is and how it works given the breadth of the definition I am using in this essay, dividing violence into different types is useful. In his 1969 essay, “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research,” sociologist Johan Galtung introduced the concept of structural violence as distinct from physical violence to describe the ways in which institutions and societies make policy and create dominant norms that enact physical, psychological, and material violence on marginalized individuals and groups.18 Two decades later, Galtung argued that there was also cultural violence, by which he meant to refer to “those aspects of culture, the symbolic sphere of our existence—exemplified by religion and ideology, language and art, empirical science and formal science (logic, mathematics)—that can be used to justify or legitimize direct or structural violence.”19 In making that argument, Galtung clearly articulated the tripartite understanding of violence that has come to dominate modern thinking on the concept. Of course, Galtung was not the only scholar exploring violence in these ways. Like so many ideas that come to dominate intellectual thinking, the tripartite concept of violence was circulating broadly among thinkers throughout the last half of the twentieth century. As but one example, Frantz Fanon's 1961 The Wretched of the Earth demonstrates a deep awareness of structural and rhetorical violence alongside the physical violence the book is more known for, although Fanon does not use these terms.20 So Galtung was simply one of the first to clearly articulate a theoretical justification of the tripartite view of violence, and it is an understanding of violence that continues to hold resonance today, although scholars often use different names for each of the three violences. For example, in Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, Slavoj Žižek argues without reference to any other scholarship on the matter that violence should be understood as a “triumvirate” that consists of subjective violence, by which he means direct or physical violence, and two forms of objective violence that he labels symbolic and systemic.21

Following this work, I also want to highlight the three types of violence and show how rhetorical scholars have already been doing great work exploring two of them. I follow Galtung in referring to the violence that enforces racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and other forms of hate embedded in policy decisions and social norms as structural. When it comes to the direct or subjective violence that involves the exertion of force to cause damage, pain, and death, I refer to physical violence. In talking about the symbolic and cultural markers that reinforce structural violence and delineate what is and is not understood as physical violence, I use the term rhetorical violence. In what follows, I offer a brief explication of both rhetorical violence and structural violence, with reference to recent research in our field that explores both, before turning to physical violence and exploring ways in which rhetoricians might more directly turn our critical attention to it.

Rhetorical Violence

While there has long been a “philosophical critique of rhetoric [that] generally characterized it as a quasi-violent abuse of human judgment,” the turn to thinking about how rhetoric itself can be violence is relatively recent in the discipline as it has existed primarily in the United States since the early twentieth century.22 To be sure, the 1980s saw a surge of interest in scholars thinking about the relationship between rhetoric and power, but there was little talk of violence. Rhetoric could be coercive, deceitful, and dangerous, but violence was not a descriptor that had much traction in the field during the last decades of the twentieth century. Even in Sonja Foss and Cindy Griffin's much debated “Beyond Persuasion: A Proposal for an Invitational Rhetoric,” the word violence never appears. Foss and Griffin argue clearly for their view that rhetoric had long been dominated by patriarchal assumptions, which included the idea that persuasion was at the heart of rhetoric. Moreover, they make explicit their claim that any attempt to persuade is an attempt to change another person, which is inherently “a desire for control and domination, for the act of changing another establishes the power of the change agent over that other.”23 Still, they never use the word violence. The closest they come to doing so was when they note that “although [persuasive] strategies allow more choice to the audience than do the supposedly more heavy-handed strategies of physical coercion, they still infringe on others’ rights to believe as they choose and to act in ways they believe are best for them.”24 One cannot help but notice their use of “supposedly” and of “physical coercion” instead of violence, as both show a hesitancy to make the stronger claim. Perhaps it was the result of a heavy-handed editor or the dreaded Reviewer Two.

Still, their decision to not use the term “violence” in one of the field's major journals in 1995 is all the more surprising given that their views on rhetoric as persuasion rely heavily on the work of Sally Miller Gearhart. Although better known for her work in feminist science fiction and spearheading the development of women studies programs, Gearhart spent much of her career in the field of speech communication, and in 1979 she published “The Womanization of Rhetoric” in Women's Studies International Quarterly. In that essay, Gearhart acknowledged that the key principle of rhetoric was persuasion and then argued that “any attempt to persuade is an act of violence.”25 Going further on that point, Gearhart suggested that, as a discipline, the field of rhetoric had “gone about its task of educating others to violence with the most audacity. The fact that it has done so with language and metalanguage, with refined functions of the mind, instead of with whips or rifles does not excuse it from the mindset of the violent.”26 Despite making such a clear and controversial claim, Gearhart's essay was not widely taken up in the field of rhetoric, at least not by those scholars who dominated the discipline's publishing outlets. While there are certainly multiple reasons many ignored Gearhart's essay, one reason is almost certainly rhetoric's longstanding investment in being seen as, in the words of James Crosswhite, the “great other” to violence.27 Indeed, for some that investment is about the very nature of humanness. As Nathan Stormer has written, “the significance of language is encapsulated in a hypothetical memory of humanity outwitting violence. Language as the definitive human capacity is fundamental to rhetoric's self-image and, more important, to ontological assumptions about what rhetoric is and does.”28 Thankfully, rhetoric's self-image has taken a more honest turn over the past two decades, and the field has benefited greatly from numerous scholars, including Erin Rand, Jeremy Engels, and Ian Hill, who have taken up the violence of rhetoric.29

Structural Violence

Searching rhetoric journals for the term “structural violence” does not admittedly return very many results. However, this is not because rhetoricians are not working at the intersection of rhetoric and structural violence. It is quite the opposite. The issue is simply one of naming. In a recent book on violence, forensic psychiatrist Bandy X. Lee has defined structural violence by asserting that it “refers to the avoidable limitations that society places on groups of people that constrain them from meeting their basic needs and achieving the quality of life that would otherwise be possible. These limitations, which can be political, economic, religious, cultural, or legal in nature, usually originate in institutions that exercise power over particular subjects.”30 As should be abundantly clear from this definition, structural violence focuses on the ways in which societies and institutions create and maintain embedded structures that disproportionately harm marginalized and disenfranchised groups. In rhetorical studies, work that examines such structures does so primarily through looking at the discursive nature of racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and other forms of violence done in the name of maintaining the social order for, primarily, white, cis-gendered men.

In making that last claim, it should be noted here that one reason the term structural violence appears less often than might be expected in rhetorical scholarship is because of the outsized role Michel Foucault's work played in rhetoric's critical turn. One need look no further than Raymie McKerrow's influential 1989 essay, “Critical Rhetoric: Theory and Praxis,” to see the influence of Foucault and his terminology.31 Since the 1980s, a primary concern for rhetorical scholars concerned with the “limitations that society places on groups of people” has been examining and understanding discourses, structures, and apparatuses of power. While power may be used for violent ends, power is not always already violent. Indeed, equating power with violence would have been deeply problematic for critical rhetoricians since Foucault himself did not “believe there can be a society without relations of power, if you understand them as means by which individuals try to conduct, to determine the behavior of others.”32 However, while power relations are unavoidable, the hope of Foucault's project, and many who took up his work, was to focus on the structures of power in order to work toward “rules of law, the techniques of management, and also the ethics, ethos, the practice of self, which would allow these games of power to be played with a minimum of domination.”33 It is for this reason that instead of finding more widespread use of structural violence, one finds reference to structures of power that lead to domination and oppression. As important as words are to what we academics do, I can imagine some might want to suggest that domination and oppression are not, technically speaking, violence. However, as domination and oppression happen intentionally and cause, at the very least, “psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation,” I see them as inherently violent, which is why I argue that our field has been much engaged in work on structural violence over the past three decades, even if that has not been a pervasively used term.

However, while I think it is important to acknowledge the broader focus in our field related to structural violence through other terminologies, I also want to note here that work which explicitly incorporates the term structural violence has been on the increase in the past decade. As these few brief examples make clear, rhetorical scholars engaging structural violence do so explicitly through a focus on the rhetoric that either normalizes or critiques it. For instance, Ellen Gorsevski and Michael Butterworth offered a reassessment of Muhammad Ali's rhetoric in the 1960s to highlight the threat of violence in Ali's nonviolent discourse. Using Galtung's work to ground much of their analysis, they argue that “Ali's rhetoric represents a productive site for engaging politics by going beyond resistance, creating proactive interventions against institutional [i.e., structural] and cultural forms of violence.”34 In her analysis of how US print media framed feminicides in Ciudad, Juárez, Michelle Holling asserted that the news framing of the murders was in fact a “discursive violence” that worked to mask “other forms of violence,” which she identified as the structural violence that created the parameters of and supported direct violence. Finally, in their analysis of “two examples of Indigenous resistance to gendered violence” in relation to the United States, Ashley Noel Mack and Tiara Na'puti argued that such resistance was vitally important to challenge colonial logics.35 Moreover, they note that both of their case studies “demonstrate the necessity of decolonial feminist critique by treating colonialism as an ongoing process of structural violence.”36

Given this work on structural violence and the rhetorical violence discussed above, it would seem that two aspects of the violence triumvirate are already very much a part of rhetorical scholarship. Such work is vitally important, but I fear it is incomplete without other work that takes up the third type of violence. With that in mind, I turn now to the rhetoric of physical violence.

Physical Violence as Rhetorical

To think about how violence can be understood as rhetorical, I want to first take up the recent work of Alan Page Fiske, an anthropologist, and Tage Shakti Rai, a psychologist, who published an intriguing book with Cambridge University Press titled, Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships. There, Fiske and Rai define violence as actions “in which the perpetrator regards inflicting pain, suffering, fear, distress, injury, maiming, disfigurement, or death as the intrinsic, necessary, or desirable means to the intended ends.”37 While not, perhaps, the most eloquent definition, it does fit well within the scope of the broader definition of violence offered above as it includes both threats (i.e., fear, distress) and intentionality. It is, that is, a perfectly fine description of physical violence. And with that definition of violence clearly articulated, Fiske and Rai's central argument is that:

Most violence is morally motivated. People do not simply justify or excuse their violent actions after the fact; at the moment they act, people intend to cause harm or death to someone they feel should suffer or die. That is, people are impelled to violence when they feel that to regulate certain social relationships, imposing suffering or death is necessary, natural, legitimate, desirable, condoned, admired, and ethically gratifying. In short, most violence is the exercise of moral rights and obligations.38

While they acknowledge that some violence falls outside the scope of what they mean by virtuous violence, Fiske and Rai argue that most physical violence is morally motivated to create or maintain social relationships.

To make that argument, Fiske and Rai rely on a relational model that Fiske developed over several decades. That relational model relies heavily, in turn, on a notion of morality defined “as the intentions, motivations, evaluations, and conjoined emotions that operate to realize ideal models of social relationships in a culturally meaningful manner.”39 While such a definition might at first seem odd, comparing it to the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of the adjective moral shows that it is not: “of or relating to human character or behavior considered as good or bad; of or relating to the distinction between right and wrong, or good and evil, in relation to the actions, desires, or character of responsible human beings.” With the OED's definition as an anchor, Fiske and Rai's definition simply states that when people act violently, they do so because, at least in the moment, they believe it necessary to do the right thing to maintain or achieve what they believe to be an ideal relationality within the social world they inhabit. Their actions may be distorted because of misinterpreted religious views or conspiracy theories or broadly held ideological views (e.g., racism and patriarchy in the United States and much of the world), but when they act on those views, they believe they are doing so to create or maintain a sense of right.

To convince the reader of their argument, Fiske and Rai spend the bulk of their book describing various forms of violence and demonstrating the relationships that people were attempting to morally regulate. Their examples include things such as a parent using corporal punishment to enforce or reinforce their authority over a child, gang members attacking rivals to protect the honor of their group, and even soldiers torturing prisoners to gain information that might help them protect their comrades. In each instance, the violent perpetrators are compelled to act violently because they believe it is a useful or necessary way to maintain or even improve their relationships with others.

Of course, throughout their work, Fiske and Rai make clear that there are certainly others ways to regulate relationships, and those other ways include all of the verbal and nonverbal means of interacting that communication scholars have long studied. Acknowledging those many means of communicating to regulate relationships leads to a question often asked in such work: why do people give up on words and pick up a gun? Why do people ever turn to physical violence when there are alternative options? The answer to that central question carries significant implications for thinking through the rhetoric of violence. As Fiske and Rai put it near the end of their book, “milder, weaker, gentler, less salient ways of regulating relationships are adequate for most everyday purposes, often require less effort, and are usually safer;” therefore, “virtuous violence theory posits that people use violence to grab others’ attention and impress them by demonstrating that the relational stakes are high.”40 That is, people use violence as human inducement when they feel that other means of communicating will not work and the situation requires that a message get through. And they do so to regulate their relationships with themselves and others. Or, as I put it above, people use physical violence to affectively and symbolically define and reinforce individual and group identities.

While Fiske and Rai's work helps hone in on my argument, there are several rhetorical scholars who have also already begun to elucidate physical violence's rhetorical scope. Although this recent work is useful in delineating new understandings of physical violence as rhetorical acts, it is not the first time rhetorical scholars have started to explore the ways in which violence functions as human inducement. Prior to the contemporary moment in rhetorical studies, perhaps the closest the field came to directly engaging the rhetoric of physical violence was in the late 1960s. Given the political climate at the time, it is perhaps not really all that surprising. Still, it is notable, and two essays stand out—Franklyn Haiman's “The Rhetoric of the Streets” and Robert Scott and Donald Smith's “The Rhetoric of Confrontation.” Both essays push toward acknowledging that the physical violence that was taking place within social movements of the time might be considered rhetoric. I emphasize “might” because neither essay ever makes the claim explicit. Scott and Smith certainly get the closest as they describe the actions that are part of a rhetoric of confrontation as “inherently symbolic.” And then they quickly add that, “the act carries a message. It dissolves the lines between marches, sit-ins, demonstrations, acts of physical violence, and aggressive discourse. In this way it informs us of the essential nature of discourse itself as human action.”41 While they include physical violence in these dissolving lines, they offer nothing more about physical violence specifically. Haiman, whose essay was published two years earlier, seems even more uncertain. Although he clearly does entertain the place of violence within the larger social movements of his time, he seems reluctant to engage it beyond noting that it sometimes does lead to change. His use of quotations here makes his ambivalence clear: “It would seem that even the ‘rhetoric of the riot,’ mindless and indiscriminate as it may be, has its positive function in contemporary life.”42 As Haiman does not cite any other scholarship to explain the quotations, he clearly places scare quotes around rhetoric of the riot to cast doubt on whether or not riots should be seen as rhetoric. In both these essays, the authors stop short of fully acknowledging the rhetoric of physical violence even as they do the important work of pushing critics to think in new ways.

Over the next few decades, it is difficult to find rhetorical scholarship that truly focuses on physical violence. There is much fine work in the rhetoric of social movements on body rhetoric,43 image events,44 and responses to violent political actions,45 but a focus on the rhetoric of physical violence itself is absent. That has begun to change in recent years. For instance, writing about the post-9/11 terror wars, Heather Ashley Hayes posited “a relationship between discourse and violence that is beyond a debate about whether or not rhetoric is violent.”46 Rooted in materialist understandings of rhetoric and Foucault's ideas on power, Hayes moved beyond that debate and argued that violence with and as rhetoric can “create new rhetorical situations and subjectivities.”47 While Hayes's conception of the rhetoric of physical violence expands beyond my own in some ways, her acknowledgement of violence's ability to create new subjectivities aligns directly with the contention that physical violence primarily does the work of identity creation and maintenance. Several other rhetorical scholars have recently highlighted the relationship between physical violence and identity more explicitly.

For instance, in Lynching: Violence, Rhetoric, and American Identity, Ersula Ore “reads lynching as a violent rhetorical performance that enacts the color-line logic of the racial contract,” which was and is a legal and social agreement among whites in the United States to maintain a racial order that re/enforced white dominance over a supposedly inferior Black people.48 As Ore made clear, lynching in the US has always been about white US citizens using violence to amplify and make clear distinctions between racialized group identities. Moreover, so central to the US has lynching been that, as Ore put it, the rhetorical performance of lynching and the discourse that circulates around it “have been and remain interwoven both with the formation of America's national identity and with the nation's need to continually renew that identity.”49 Ultimately, both the physical violence and the rhetorical violence work to buttress the structural violence of white supremacy embedded in American identity.

In similar fashion, Megan Eatman has argued in Ecologies of Harm that violence is a “constitutive rhetoric.”50 In assessing the effectiveness of the violence she examines, Eatman noted that “lynching, execution, and torture all fail at their alleged purposes (punishing and deterring crime and extracting intelligence).”51 Although ineffective at those purposes, Eatman nevertheless found that physical violence still does important work since “organized public violence in the United States almost uniformly maintains dominant identities perceived to be at risk: white, masculine, Southern, ‘American.’”52 For Eatman, as with Ore, then, physical violence can work to regulate the power relationships between groups of people.

In her most recent book, Black Feelings: Race and Affect in the Long Sixties, Lisa Corrigan offers a model for how we might begin to think more explicitly about both affect and identity in the rhetoric of physical violence. As she explores the ways that “black feelings constituted a terrain of political struggle for black meaning, representation, and political agency,”53 Corrigan attends to the racial riots of the civil rights era and focuses explicitly on “the materiality of rioting as a discourse.”54 Connecting physical violence to the idea of intensification, Corrigan asserts that the 1960s “riots—as a product of racial feelings—are a language that shapes the polis,” adding that they “function as embodied discourse, as the material consequences of language made real and anchored in a critique of the ways that white supremacist resource distribution mimics colonial habitus.”55 As rhetoric, the riots did more than amplify the message of anger and rage and frustration that people were feeling at the time, they also helped (re)constitute communities of people. Corrigan acknowledges this when noting that riots “contain symbols that mark identity and emotions.”56 That is, the physical violence—both real and threatened—of the riots was a message from Black Americans to their white counterparts that they refused “to wait any longer for conditions to change.” The riots were an affective and symbolic articulation of Black Americans’ refusal to have their identities constrained and violated by others.

This work by Corrigan, Eatman, and Ore represents what I hope is the start of a robust set of studies on the rhetoric of physical violence, and their works show us that those studies need to focus explicitly on how people turn to violence when they feel the need to—in the strongest terms possible—regulate identities. Such work is important because we need to take physical violence seriously, and by examining the specific details of physical violence, we can potentially unpack the messages, however misguided, that violent actors are attempting to send. After all, most humans do not turn to physical violence until they actually feel they must. Despite what the media might suggest and the very real carnage that does happen, most people strongly resist doing physical violence, especially the maiming or killing of others, even in war.57 So if someone turns to violence, they feel they must. Such thinking may not be reasonable to many people, but it does nevertheless have its own logic. By acknowledging that and taking physical violence seriously as a rhetorical text, scholars have the opportunity to build a better understanding of why physical violence happens, intervene in cultural debates over that violence, and, at least potentially, help to reduce the amount of physical violence that leaves far too many people harmed or dead. While space does not allow for a full exploration of those possibilities, I do want to focus briefly on one important aspect of studying the rhetoric of physical violence—the audience.

Arguing that most physical violence is rhetorical means acknowledging that the violence is intended for some audience. Given how easy it can be to dismiss physical violence as senseless or random and violent perpetrators as mentally ill or delusional, thinking about who violent actors are trying to reach helps push back against such cultural assumptions. As I see it, there are five primary audiences—the self, the victims, people who resemble or identify with the victims, people who the violent actor identifies with, or some imagined deity. In some instances, people turn to physical violence to cause self-harm or prove something to themselves. People self-flagellate to punish themselves; they commit suicide because they believe they are not worthy of living; and they stand up to a bully to prove to themselves they are not a coward. In each instance, the audience is the same—they are primarily talking to themselves. A second audience is the victim. From parents and intimate partners to the police and nation states, people turn to physical violence to send messages about the behaviors of others—a child, a lover, a person in custody, another nation-state—in relation to themselves.

Outside the perpetrator-victim relationship, people use physical violence routinely to send messages to others. Sometimes, as is the case with lynching and public bullying, the goal is to induce others to behave in ways preferred by the violent actor. In the US, white people have long used lynching to maintain dominance over Black people, and cis-hetero men have used it against gay and trans people to tell other gay and trans people they are not welcome in a community. With public bullying, the idea is to show coworkers or classmates who holds the most power. In other cases, people turn to physical violence to send messages to people they identify with, as when a white racist attacks a group of Black churchgoers in the hope that their act of violence might inspire others to stand up for what they see as the true America. Finally, there is no shortage of physical violence that happens in the name of some variation of a god. That is, when some people turn to physical violence—whether they are a Muslim suicide bomber or a Christian anti-abortion fanatic—they seek to show their image of god they are worthy of their love by punishing perceived enemies.

Of course, these five categories are not meant to be mutually exclusive. As work on personas in our field has shown, rhetors can easily have multiple audiences.58 As it is with other forms of rhetoric so, too, is it with physical violence. My point in highlighting these five potential audiences is simply to show how a full-fledged scholarly inquiry into the rhetoric of physical violence might begin to assess the numerous ways people turn to hurting, maiming, and killing others as a way to send affective and symbolic messages about group identity. Such scholarly inquiry is important since it would allow rhetorical scholars to both correct the historical record as they reassess past acts of physical violence and intervene in the contemporary moment to reveal the rhetorical messaging of physical violence that gets too easily dismissed as senseless.


The primary goal of this essay has been to both argue that we should think of most physical violence as rhetorical and make a case for why such scholarship is important. Of course, I realize that some may nevertheless resist the notion that violence is ever truly rhetorical. Hannah Arendt went to great lengths in her own work to make such an argument when she concluded that “sheer violence is mute, and for this reason violence alone can never be great.”59 Of course, to reach this conclusion required the complex vita activa that she sought to explain and celebrate in The Human Condition. However, one need not degrade the important work of the home and the factory to redefine the purpose of human life in order to attempt to dismiss the rhetorical power of violence. Indeed, there can be a much more colloquial tendency to want to turn the old nursey rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words shall never hurt me,” on its head: Words and arguments may change my mind, but violence will never persuade me. But as we rhetorical scholars know all too well that words can hurt, we need to acknowledge just as clearly that violence can be very persuasive.

Acknowledging this does not mean that all rhetoric is violent nor all physical violence rhetorical. Rhetoric can bridge differences. It can open new opportunities. It can facilitate collaboration. It can bring peace and joy. And physical violence does not always attempt to send a message or symbolically induce others to act. In violence studies, after all, there are those that divide physical violence into two categories—expressive and instrumental. Like all such categorizing of phenomena, these two categories are not perfect, but they do point to important differences. Sometimes people act out violently in a moment of rage or for reasons that emerge from their psychosis. Arguing that such expressive acts of violence are rhetorical may go beyond definitional credibility, and not everything actually needs to fall within the scope of rhetoric. On the other hand, instrumental violence has a purpose and an audience. And as I have tried to argue here, that purpose is the affective and symbolic inducement of others.

In arguing that we need to begin to focus more explicitly on the rhetoric of physical violence, I have not meant to devalue the work being done on rhetorical violence and symbolic violence. Nor do I fail to realize the interconnectedness off all three parts of the violence triumvirate. Rhetorical violence most certainly normalizes structural violence and can lead to physical violence. Physical violence is often borne out of structural violence and needs rhetorical violence to justify itself. The relationship between the three is intimate and complicated, but if we ever hope to fully understand the full scope of violence, we need to better understand each of the three parts. Whether the singular focus or part of a larger study, work on the rhetoric of physical violence can only help us make our world a better place.

The scholarship in this special issue is certainly a step in that direction, and the six essays that follow fall broadly into three approaches. The first two essays focus on how physical violence can be understood in relation to broader structural violence. Matthew Houdek and Lisa Flores explore both types of violence as interrelated parts of the deeply foundational antiblackness of the United States. Examining both the police killing of Breonna Taylor in March 2020 and the DEI work done in higher education following the police killing of George Floyd, Houdek and Flores plumb the depths of the violence done through anti-Black stoppage. In a similar move, Bryan McCann identifies a sadistic form embedded within contemporary US culture and demonstrates how a focus on the rituals of serial murderers like Ted Bundy helps reveal other sadistic modes of violence that happen in more quotidian ways. In both essays, the authors demonstrate how giving attention to physical violence in relation to structural violence can help illuminate underlying societal problems that circulate widely in a multitude of seen and unseen ways.

The next two essays in this special issue look at the ways in which external-facing violence can transform into internal violence. In both their essays, José Ángel Maldonado and Heather Ashley Hayes are focused on that transformation within the US context. Maldonado explores how US military engagements in countries around the world may have come to infect American democracy itself. Using the attempted insurrection of the United States government on January 6, 2021, as a lens, he thinks through the relationship between rhetoric and violence within the national context. In doing so, Maldonado identifies a democratic violence that has emerged, at least in part, from the notion of American exceptionalism and its outward manifestations. Likewise, Hayes draws attention to how the language and tactics of the terror wars the US has fought abroad are beginning to manifest within the nation itself. In particular, Hayes focuses on the use of both military equipment and former military personnel against the protesters struggling to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. Using rhetorical cartography as her lens, Hayes shows how the discursive and material practices of the terror wars in the Middle East were mapped onto the protesters at home. In both essays, one finds the authors thinking in unique ways about how violence can get beyond our control.

The final two essays both turn their attention more directly to physical violence's rhetorical purposes. In his essay, Richard Pineda examines the August 3, 2019, mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Focusing on the physical violence of the shooting and examining the shooter's manifesto as a way to help make sense of that shooting, Pineda is able to demonstrate how the physical violence can be read as the amplification of the anti-immigrant discourse that was being spread by then-President Donald Trump and other Republicans. Finally, Billie Murray tackles the relationship between violence and nonviolence, arguing that both modern conceptions of them and the surveillance of the latter have left nonviolence far less effective than it once was. Acknowledging that, Murray turns to protest violence as an alternative form of engagement, noting that it, too, functions rhetorically. For Murray, such physical violence works to challenge the assumptions encoded in logics of dominance. For both Murray and Pineda, then, physical violence is rhetorical because individuals use it to help them manage relationships between groups of people.



Joseph Biden, Twitter post, May 15, 2022, 7:54 p.m., https://twitter.com/potus/status/1526003099529355264.


Bill Chappell, “In Texas, Moms Demand Action Got More Than 20,000 New Supporters After Uvalde,” NPR, June 13, 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/06/13/1104240744/texas-moms-demand-action-new-supporters-after-uvalde.


“Pope Francis Makes Easter Appeal for Peace in ‘Senseless’ Ukraine War,” PBS News Hour, April 17, 2022, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/pope-francis-makes-easter-appeal-for-peace-in-senseless-ukraine-war; Sami Quadri, “Ukraine Subject ‘To Barbarism’ as Russia ‘Murdering Innocent Lives’, Says Liz Truss,” Evening Standard, May 7, 2022, https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/liz-truss-russia-war-crimes-ukraine-bucha-mariupol-world-b998605.html.


For an intriguing recent analysis of how this takes place in the US context, see Joshua Reeves, “Rhetoric, Violence, and the Subject of Civility,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 19 (2022): 91–180.


Craig A. Hosterman, “The Rhetoric of Violence,” Communicator 8 (1978): 9.


Hosterman, “The Rhetoric of Violence,” 9.


Hosterman, “The Rhetoric of Violence,” 16.


Hosterman, “The Rhetoric of Violence,” 18.


Hosterman, “The Rhetoric of Violence,” 18.


Throughout this essay, I use violence in four senses, so when the term appears without a modifying adjective, I am using the term as I define it in the second section.


See, for instance, Walter R. Fisher, “A Motive View of Communication,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 56 (1970): 131; Stanley B. Cunningham, “Rhetor Redux: A Rejoinder to the Cherwitz/Hikins Definition of Rhetoric,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 21 (1988): 290; and Martin J. Medhurst, “The History of Public Address as an Academic Study,” in The Handbook of Rhetoric and Public Address, eds. Shawn J. Parry-Giles & J. Michael Hogan (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 55.


Willem de Haan, “Violence as an Essentially Contested Concept,” in Sophie Body-Gendrot and Pieter Spierenburg (eds.), Violence in Europe: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (New York: Springer, 2008), 28.


“Frequently Asked Questions about The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” https://stevenpinker.com/frequently-asked-questions-about-better-angels-our-nature-why-violence-has-declined.


Larry Ray, Violence & Society, 2nd ed. SAGE, 2018.


Etienne G. Krug, Linda L. Dahlberg, James A. Mercy, Anthony B. Zwi, & Rafael Lozano, World Report on Violence and Health, Geneva, World Health Organization, 2002.


Elizabeth A. Stanko, “Violence,” in E. McLaughton and J. Munie (eds), The Sage Dictionary of Criminology (London: Sage, 2001).


Johan Gatung, “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research,” Journal of Peace Research 6 (1969): 167–191.


Johan Galtung, “Cultural Violence,” Journal of Peace Research 27 (1990): 291–305.


Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1963).


Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador, 2008), 1–2.


David Randall, “The Rhetoric of Violence, the Public Sphere, and the Second Amendment,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 49 (2016): 129.


Sonja K. Foss & Cindy L. Griffin, “Beyond Persuasion: A Proposal for an Invitational Rhetoric,” Communication Monographs 62 (1995): 3.


Foss and Griffin, “Beyond Persuasion,” 3.


Sally Miller Gearhart, “The Womanization of Rhetoric,” Women's Studies International Quarterly 2 (1979): 195.


Gearhart, 195.


James Crosswhite, Deep Rhetoric: Philosophy, Reason, Violence, Justice, Wisdom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 134.


Nathan Stormer, “On the Origins of Violence and Language,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 99 (2013): 182.


For good examples of work on rhetorical violence, see Erin J. Rand, “Thinking Violence and Rhetoric,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 12 (2009): 461–477; Jeremy Engels, “Introduction to the Forum on the Violence of Rhetoric,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 99 (2013): 180–81; and Ian E. J. Hill, “Rhetorica's Sword,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 52 (2019): 312–321.


Bandy X. Lee, Violence: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Causes, Consequences, and Cure (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2019), 123.


Raymie E. McKerrow, “Critical Rhetoric: Theory and Praxis,” Communication Monographs 56 (1989): 91–111.


Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977 (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 129.


Foucault, Power/Knowledge, 129.


Ellen W. Gorsevski & Michael L. Butterworthy, “Muhammad Ali's Fighting Words: The Paradox of Violence in Nonviolent Rhetoric,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 97 (2011): 50–73.


Ashley Noel Mack & Tiara R. Na'puti, “‘Our Bodies Are Not Terra Nullius’: Building a Decolonial Feminist Resistance to Gendered Violence,” Women's Studies in Communication 42 (2019): 348.


Mack and Na'puti, “Our Bodies,” 364.


Alan Page Fiske & Tage Shakti Rai, Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 2.


Fiske and Rai, Virtuous Violence, 1.


Fiske and Rai, Virtuous Violence, 135.


Fiske and Rai, Virtuous Violence, 261.


Robert L. Scott & Donald K. Smith, “The Rhetoric of Confrontation,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 55 (1969): 7.


Franklyn S. Haiman, “The Rhetoric of the Streets: Some Legal and Ethical Considerations,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 53 (1967): 108.


See, for example, Darrel Enck-Wanzer, “Trashing the System: Social Movement, intersectional Rhetoric, and Collective Agency in the Young Lords Organization's Garbage Offensive,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 92 (2006): 174–210.


See, for example, Kevin Michael DeLuca, “From Public Sphere to Public Screen: Democracy, Activism, and the ‘Violence of Seattle,’” Critical Studies in Media Communication 19 (2002): 125–151.


See, for example, Cheryl R. Jorgensen-Earp, In the Wake of Violence: Image & Social Reform (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2008).


Heather Ashley Hayes, Violent Subjects and Rhetorical Cartography in the Age of the Terror Wars (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 34.


Hayes, Violent Subjects, 35.


Ersula J. Ore, Lynching: Violence, Rhetoric, and American Identity (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2019), 17.


Ore, Lynching, 26.


Megan Eatman, Ecologies of Harm: Rhetorics of Violence in the United States (Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2020), 9.


Eatman, Ecologies of Harm.


Eatman, Ecologies of Harm.


Lisa M. Corrigan, Black Feelings: Race and Affect in the Long Sixties (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2020), xvii.


Corrigan, Black Feelings, 76.


Corrigan, Black Feelings, 81.


Corrigan, Black Feelings, 82.


For a thoughtful discussion of this reluctance to act violently, see David Livingstone Smith, Less than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2011), 226–262


See, Charles E. Morris, “Pink Herring & the Fourth Persona: J. Edgar Hoover's Sex Crime Panic,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 88 (2002): 228–244.


Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

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