I’m a writer. Okay, you know that or you wouldn’t be reading this. As a writer, I use the same 26 letters and two dozen grammatical tools that every other writer uses. But beyond that, it’s the same tools that every human uses to communicate. We all use those letters to create words. We all use words to create sentences that communicate our thoughts and ideas. We use grammar to help us make sense out of those words and to communicate more effectively. Yet, as a writer, I sometimes think that I’m much more aware of the power that words have over human beings.
Civilizations have long known that words have power. When a tyrant wishes to take over culture, one of the first things they do is silence the free thinkers and take control of the media and information channels. Ancient mystics believed that you could take control of someone if you knew their name. “Spellcasters” gave specific words power and used them to help or harm others. It was the other person’s belief that the words held power that actually changed the circumstances.
Back in college, my psychology professor and I had a rousing discussion during one class about the necessity of swear words. He started the class by using every four letter word he could think of. Apart from the entertainment value, his point was “If I can hurt you with words, I don’t need to hurt you with my fists.” I never worried too much about swearing after that.
But that’s the power words have. Spoken or written, with the right inflection or wrong, words have an impact. How many teen suicides have we seen over the past three years caused primarily by one person calling another person bad names. Bullying is almost always a verbal assault rather than a physical assault.
Recently, a MLB player learned that words have an impact and not necessarily on the intended target. He wrote in spanish “You’re a faggot” on the eye black patches he wore during a game recently. He was suspended for three games, with everyone from the commissioner of baseball to his own team managers and owners and players denouncing his action.
Words as simple as “47%” can bring down a presidential candidate.
Words as innocuous as “I can see Russia from my house!” can cause a person to never be taken seriously ever again.
Words as damning as “I never had sex with that girl!” can cause impeachment procedings.
Words as daunting as “You act like a girl/boy!” can cause a teenager to end their own life. Or someone else’s.
Words have power. Our words have power.
Anyone over the age of 40 remembers our mothers and fathers and teachers and preachers saying over and over “Think before you speak!” Whatever happened to that lesson? It seems now people believe they can say whatever they want and give a half-assed non-apology later and that makes it all better. People seldom learn or change their behavior this way.
There’s a classic line from the book Anne of Green Gables where Marilla is explaining something to Anne. “Good behavior in the first place is better than flowery apologies in the second place.”
But we don’t see that kind of thing much anymore. What we see are people who don’t think before saying or doing. We see a lot of apologies that aren’t really apologies because the person saying them doesn’t believe them and didn’t learn from them. I hate having to apologize because that means I have to acknowledge that my actions have hurt another individual and I never ever want to hurt anyone ever. So I do my damnedest not to hurt anyone.
Words have an impact, my friend, and to think otherwise is foolish and uneducated.