When Angry Words Become Violent Actions

Violent language — even language that only gestures toward violence — creates its own effects and its own momentum, which it cannot always control.

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In February 1909, a strange new manifesto appeared, first in the Bologna-based Italian- language newspaper Gazzetta dell’ Emiliana, and then in French in Le Figaro. Readers of the declaration might have struggled to work out whether the manifesto was political or aesthetic in character. In the past, the celebrated manifestos had been political: the “Communist Manifesto” of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, for example, published in 1848, or Anselm Bellegarrigue’s “Anarchist Manifesto” of 1850. Yet this piece of work seemed to blend political and aesthetic sentiments: The “essential elements of our poetry,” it read, “will be courage, audacity and revolt.”

The manifesto also explicitly glorified “war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism … the beautiful ideas which kill.” In our own time, there has been much discussion around the ways in which “incendiary” language creates a dangerous political atmosphere. What can we learn from turning to an earlier period in modern history?

Angry Words, Violent Actions

The 1909 declaration was the founding “Manifesto of Futurism,” and its author was an eccentric, Egyptian-born Italian writer, artist and political radical Filippo Tommasso Marinetti. Marinetti would go on to promote fascism, and the art of the Futurists — with its obsession with speed, technology and, increasingly, military power — would be close to one of the official styles of the fascist revolution. The attitude of the “Futurist Manifesto,” a piece of writing that emerged long before the seizure of power by the Fascists in Italy in 1922, is an extreme example of a phenomenon which is very much with us now. What is the connection between rhetorical and actual violence? When do angry words become violent actions, and how should they be resisted?

The manifesto of 1909 was not the only type of document circulating Europe in this time period that extolled violence, of course, and not all of these types of rhetoric are linked to what we would now call the radical right. Yet the manifesto seems unique in the extreme, extravagant and performative nature of its language. It seems intentionally to goad its readers, promoting an aggressive misogyny —“We want to glorify … contempt for women,” it states — and a joy in destruction for its own sake.

“We want,” writes Marinetti, “to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.” The manifesto is littered with references to violence, war and destruction. It was a “manifesto of ruinous and incendiary violence,” which wanted to “heap up the fire to the shelves of the libraries,” because “art can only be violence, cruelty, injustice.”

If such “extremist” language cannot be shown to have had a direct impact on the squadristi violence of fascism in the 1920s and the violence of the National Fascist Party regime in power at home and abroad, Marinetti certainly cheered on fascist imperialism and was always a consistently pro-military figure. Indeed, the Futurists had initially agitated for Italy to enter the First World War in 1914. By the time of Marinetti’s death in 1944, the writer and artist was creating eulogies to Italian fighting units and remained loyal to the fascist cause, even as represented by the Nazi-backed puppet state of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana.

In 1945, the fascist-supporting American poet Ezra Pound placed the ghost of the recently-deceased Marinetti in his “Canto 72,” promising retribution for the defeat of the Axis powers at the battle of El Alamein. In this context, the relation of violent language to actual violence is complex and layered. Futurist and fascist agitators glorified war and violence at the same time as the street fighting and, later, imperialist wars of fascism, played out in the real world.

Cause and Effect

Cause and effect cannot be straightforwardly demonstrated here. Yet language surely creates a context in which violent acts may become increasingly commonplace. In contemporary Britain, the fevered atmosphere around Brexit has similarly given birth to a situation in which angry words and incendiary language are paralleled with a rise in radical-right street action. Prime Minister Boris Johnson dismissed concerns raised in the House of Commons by the Labour MP Paula Sherriff that his rhetoric would or could fuel violence as “so much humbug.”

In the prime minister’s mind, terms like “surrender,” used to describe the Brexit Withdrawal Bill designed by the opposition and rebel Conservative MPs to prevent a no-deal Brexit, are simply his usual colorful rhetoric. But Johnson is now supported by radical-right actors like the self-styled Tommy Robinson / Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, founder of the English Defence League. “We back Boris,” Yaxley-Lennon wrote at the beginning of September, referring repeatedly to those who opposed the prime minister as “traitors.”

“Death to traitors, freedom for Britain,” was famously what Thomas Mair, the murderer of the Labour MP Jo Cox, had shouted when asked his name during his court trial. The link between the prime minister’s rhetoric — along other leaders of the pro-Brexit “mainstream” right — and radical-right violence is not a question of a smoking gun or a straightforward case of cause and effect. Rather, the use of violent language causes an atmosphere where sentiments emerging from supposedly responsible politicians are mirrored back to them by the agitators of the radical right.

Florid, excessive language that hints at violence then often incites a more shocking response from its listeners. For example, at an event at the Conservative Party conference, Boris Johnson suggested that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn be “removed” and placed in a “figurative rocket” to “send him into orbit.” But Johnson’s words — a cartoonish vision with an attempt at humor — were interrupted by voices from the Tory activists on the floor, who suggested Corbyn be put in a “noose” and sent to “traitor’s gate” in a reference to the prisoners’ entrance to the Tower of London.

In this context, Johnson’s jokey rhetoric was reflected back to him in words that seemed to suggest a far more visceral and violent reaction to opposition politicians. In particular, the repeated use of the word “traitor” in the rhetoric of both radical-right thugs like Yaxley-Lennon, murderers like Mair and the activists of a supposedly mainstream UK political party is disturbing.

If there is not always a direct link between words and violence, there is nonetheless a sense that violent language incites, creating an effect of heightened tension, enabling its select audiences to delight in the prospect of destruction and battle. The philosopher Thorsten Botz-Borstein has compared the aesthetics of Italian Futurism to that of the so-called Islamic State. For Botz-Borstein, the nihilism at the heart of both projects exalts in the prospect of violent destruction, particularly through the use of technology.

This is by no means to compare the language of Boris Johnson and other politicians with the Islamic State. However, violent language — even language that only gestures toward violence — creates its own effects, its own momentum, which it cannot always control. In the 1935 “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the German critic Walter Benjamin described fascism as a product of a self-alienation that had reached “such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”

We must avoid the temptation of thinking that language is “overstating” political desires, that nobody really wants the kind of violence or chaos being gestured to. For this underestimates the power — the aesthetic power — of language to create or encourage these desires in its listeners.

Dr David Barnes is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and an expert in literary and cultural history, with a particular interest in nationalism and fascism. See his profile here.

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