Guest Post: Linguistic non aggression principle

Our language carries a legacy of the authoritarian societies of the past. It has historically evolved to reflect what the ruling members of the society needed expressing: demands, dominance and intimidation. This language is still disconnecting people from each other today. This causes conflicts and makes the state grow.

If the anarchist evolution is going to happen through anarchistic means then the best step towards social change is to make room for more anarchy in our private social networks. This can be best achieved by applying the non aggression principle to these relationships.

I came across some good ideas for what this could look like in an excellent book by Marshall Rosenberg called “Non Violent Communication”. I do not believe Rosenberg is an anarchist but when reading his book, I could not stop thinking how deeply anarchistic his ideas are. He believes that linguistic violence leads to inefficient, unsatisfactory and unpleasant interactions. In extreme cases linguistic violence is a prerequisite for physical violence.

The most obvious form of violent language is making demands or telling people what they “must”, “should” or “are supposed to” do. The “must” is violent because it is an attempt to exercise authority and take away choice. Rosenberg believes that the “must” word was introduced by kings or other tyrants to allow them control their subjects. Without a “must” it would not be possible to give orders to soldiers or extract taxes from individuals. This word and its derivations are simply not used in non violent communication.

A similar example of aggressive language is giving uninvited judgement. For example saying “you made a bad decision” means that the speaker puts himself in a position of a judge of the behaviour of others and hence claims a position of authority. Claiming authority in this way is linguistic violence even if the judgement pronounced is positive.

Violence committed by the state goes unnoticed by the majority of people. They consider it a normal state of affairs. In a very similar way more subtle forms of linguistic violence escape most people’s attention.

One example of more subtle linguistic violence is labelling. It is easy to understand why labelling someone a “murderer” is the first step towards denying them empathy. The “murderer” becomes an abstract category. Everything he does or says can be from now on explained by him belonging to this category so there is no need to understand him as a person anymore.

But it might be less obvious that calling someone “a good programmer” can also be considered violent. One reason it is the case is because this means acting as a judge again. Another reason is that once someone is labelled “a good programmer” we start paying less attention to their actions. Hence the quality of the interaction with this person deteriorates.

A particularly violent form of labelling is making comparisons. Telling your son “you are a worse student than your friends” is likely to hurt him deeply. In addition to all ways in which labelling usually retards an interaction, making comparison will be perceived as unfair because the person being judged has zero control over other people, whose performance now contributes to his assessment.

I recommend Rosenberg’s book to anyone interested in reforming the way they communicate. Adopting a verbal non aggression principle makes inter human connections stronger and harder for the forces of social coercion to corrupt. And developing stronger and happier relationships with fellow men is a logical strategy for building a voluntary society.

Jan Iwanik blogs for,, and a few other places other prominent economics blogs. He lives in London.

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