As you may have noticed, the word “violence” isn’t what it used to be. A semantic schism has emerged, with progressives often seeming to have something very different in mind when they speak of “violence” than old-fashioned liberals and conservatives do. You may have come across the headlines that ask “When Is Speech Violence?” and “Can Words Be Violent?”—but also the suggestion that the opposite is true: “Silence is the worst kind of violence.” As an exasperated New York Post columnist summarized this logic: “To speak out in the wrong way is violence. Not to speak out is violence. Not to speak out in the way progressives dictate is violence.” 

It isn’t just cultural chaos and polarization that account for the way the word “violence” has been repurposed in recent years. The theory of “structural violence,” birthed in the academy decades ago, has come of age, and even if the concept itself remains poorly understood, its premises underpin a great deal of social-justice activism. Defining this term more clearly goes a long way toward making sense of why different segments of our culture seem so frequently to be speaking past each other.

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