I walk a fine line between words. On the one hand I believe they have power—great power. Words can hurt and heal. They can start wars and negotiate peace. Words can evoke memories and inspire imaginations. They communicate ideas and feelings.
Words, like anything in human hands, can be hurtful or helpful, descriptive or deceptive, constructive or destructive, loving or full of hatred. Words can engender actions that cause physical harm, but they can also be emotionally or psychologically destructive.
On the other hand, what are words, really? Just letters strung together until they attain some meaning. So often words fail us. Sometimes they seem so impotent. What harm could they possibly do? They’re just words, right? Sticks and stones et cetera, right?
I suppose what I believe about words lies in the fluid in-between. Words have influence and limits. They are important, but they are not omnipotent.
There are words I choose not to use, but (and especially as a writer) I’m not sure I believe any words should be completely off limits. Some words may be in poor taste. Some might be hurtful. Some words get labeled derogatory or disrespectful. But I believe that every word has a meaning and therefore a purpose—even if it’s just to alert me to the fact that a racist has entered the conversation.
I spend a lot of time thinking about words. For me, words are primarily a form of expression. Can I find a clear and interesting way to share my ideas? Can I describe my emotional landscape effectively enough for others to find their way around? Can I succinctly express my thoughts? Can I help a reader put words to an unexpressed truth in his or her heart? Can I play with words just for fun?
Some use words to motivate the masses—whether to stand, fight, or walk against injustice or promote a trending hashtag. Words are as much weapons as they are tools. They can expose and scrutinize. They can propagate propaganda and incite hate crimes. The question I often wrestle with is this: How much power is really in a word versus the person who utters it?
Like a weapon or a tool, the wielding of a word’s power requires a person. Either the speaker or the listener must ascribe authority to any given word. When you speak, your words have power over me because of who I am and/or who you are. A word used with innocent intentions could, for someone, have devastating consequences. A slur hurled to hurt could enter someone else’s ears with little effect.
Who is speaking matters a great deal. So does who is listening. I cannot declare war no matter how aggressively I utter the words. And should the whole world switch the meanings of “east” and “west,” the sun’s movements would not acquiesce.
Certain words can prove quite powerful on one person’s lips while another’s voice can render them virtually impotent. Not everyone’s words are valued. Not everyone is heard. It is a collaboration (whether willing or not) between speaker and listener that gives power to words. Arrest him. Stop. Don’t shoot. I can’t breathe. The power or impotence of those words lies in who’s listening and who’s speaking.
There are words I haven’t definitively decided how I feel about. Some days being referred to as a girl (when I’m a woman in my late thirties) offends me. Other days I have no problem with it—and use the word similarly. It’s an internal debate I’m constantly revisiting.
I don’t have the answers. Clearly I believe words matter. But sometimes I think we make idols or taboos out of them too self-righteously. Does changing everyone’s language eventually change everyone’s heart? Or are the best intentions of political correctness just a superficial whitewash?
I believe words evolve, just like people, communities, and civilizations. Some words that were common a century ago are archaic today. Some words that were considered scandalous in the past are now used ubiquitously. Collectively and individually, we have elevated some words and demoted others. We have assigned connotations as well as acceptability and meaning.
So, do words have power, or are they impotent? I think the answer to both questions is no and yes. It’s important to listen as well as say what you really mean. Everyone deserves to be heard, and you never know who’s listening.