Reduced to their theoretical base level words are simply constellations of sounds arranged in recognized patterns to convey collectively agreed upon meanings. They are, in and of themselves, tools making them neither good nor evil. But given that their sole purpose is to convey meaning there is no ‘only’ about them. Those meanings can have tremendous impact and our choice of them demonstrates our intentions thus imbuing words with both vital importance and immense power.
In the hands of a skilled practitioner words can empower, up-lift, inspire, heal, and connect. They can also crush, demoralize, wound, and terrorize. Used with deliberate skill and articulation words can literally change the world. They don’t have to be part of a masterfully crafted speech or zealously penned manifesto, however, to have profound impact. Even the most casual conversations can have impacts of far greater good or ill than we might intend or are even aware of because the impactful power of meaning is more in the hands of the listener than the speaker.
For those on the outside of general social norms words can have life altering effects. The can engender safety or peril, welcome or reject, include or attack, heal or wound. At the obvious and extreme end of the spectrum prejudice and bigotry wield words as weapons, intentionally aimed at causing harm and subjugation. Fear stoked to the point of hatred gets channeled through words charged with direct or historical meaning causing wounds longer lasting than physical bruises. And words do not have to be targeted or zealously deliberate to have these kinds of impacts. Common parlance is littered with turns of phrase inherited from previous generations. Some are harmless and born of trendiness but many have points of origin in the paradigms and bigotries of our past.
Take a phrase like ‘rule of thumb’ for example. An extremely common term used to denote a ‘roughly practical method’. Though no specific law has ever been found it is widely believed the phrase arose in reference to old English common law allowing men to beat their wives with a stick as long as it was no wider than their thumb. Or the term ‘jipped’ used to denote being cheated or swindled. It is a derivation of ‘Gypsy’ which is a racial slur for the Romani people who have historically been caricatured as hucksters and persecuted as thieves. Both are commonly used vernacular with most people unaware of their historical source and context. Their use is not intended to disparage the Romani people or condone the beating of women with sticks but for those who are aware of that added context hearing them spoken can have a jarring impact, the casualness of their use seeming to add a level of mockery.
Even words and phrases completely free of complicated connotations can still have troubling impact on those outside of societal norms. Simple ordinary conversation can act as a constant reminder of their outsider status even if that impact is completely unintentional. To use myself as an example, as someone who has never had the privilege of a romantic or sexual relationship our sexualized and ‘couple heavy’ culture can be tough to navigate. Romantic and sexual themes and images in the various media I consume or the words of casual conversation I hear may not be laden with problematic historical context or poisoned with harmful intent but nevertheless can act as constant reminders of how I differ from virtually everyone around me. Since it is my context which gives those otherwise innocent words that kind of impact for me I can’t expect the other 99.99% of people to alter their perception and usage of them.
I am allowed to feel what I feel but I also have to acknowledge that my experience of that aspect of life is different than most. Those who are close to me and are familiar with my situation offer to be mindful on my behalf, a gesture I am truly grateful for, but I don’t want to feel as if my presence bars them from living their lives as themselves. That kind of compromise may sound like self-suppression, which I can’t deny it is to a degree, but I would feel just as awful, worse, superseding my concerns over theirs. Suppression is suppression regardless of which direction it flows.
That doesn’t mean I don’t demand some respect and consideration. People can have whatever conversations they wish to about themselves, use whatever language they choose in self-reference, but I do draw some lines when they are specifically talking to and about me. A dear friend only made the mistake once of referring to ‘popping my cherry’ after getting me to drive them to a part of the city I had never been in before. A common enough jest among the friends they’d grown up with but not one I appreciate, in sexual context or otherwise. They understood and haven’t done it again and I have free reign to ‘ahem’ and flick things at them if they did.
Not all such impacts are as easily resolved. I know my vulnerabilities and was able to stand up for them in a reasonable manner and my friend is someone who genuinely cares about their impact on other people. Sometimes my emotional state can certainly be less reasonable, sometimes the comment is made by someone I have little to no connection with. Fairly or not, as the outsider, I know the weight of my difference resides with me. I do my best to accept that and all the various emotional consequences which come with it but I also do my best to foster spaces of safety and understanding in my life. Far too many people are not so fortunate as to have that luxury, sometimes those impacts are feelings of complete non-existence.
The monitoring and policing of knowingly hateful and willfully harmful language is a necessity in any society which seeks to be democratic and harmonious. It is impossible, however, to remove all potential harm from language as so much of the potential impact depends on the perspective of the listener. All meaning carries weight and potential impact, good or ill, so the only way to eliminate all possible risk would be to either eliminate all words or all human experience.
That may seem like a ridiculous exaggeration but we are already seeing the cultural results of getting swept up in playing ‘gotcha’. People seeming to compete with one another to find offense where no one else has, such as an attack message sent to an annual festival I help co-ordinate informing us that the term ‘accepting submissions’ is passive-aggressive and intrinsically hierarchical. There is no such thing as a world in which no one is ever made uncomfortable by anything but how do we curtail the deliberately hateful without drowning in the throes of censorship?
Trying to manufacture language devoid of meaning isn’t the answer. We can only make true and lasting progress if we resist the temptation to fixate solely on the manifestations and instead focus of sources. While direct and targeted hate language should not be tolerated, period, we can’t simply stop there and expect the problem to be fixed. Banning the words will not banish the fear based hatred which inspired their use. Banning the ’n’ word or other prominent ethnic slurs hasn’t eliminated racism, removing gender references from administrative titles didn’t remove all glass ceilings, barring people from talking about an event doesn’t mean it never happened. It’s messy and potentially painful work but we need to steer into meaning not away from it, the words are just the delivery system for the meaning.
We also have to resist the temptation to fall into cycles of playing and feeling the victim. Believe me the ‘wounded brooding’ cycle is all too easy to fall into, and can be ridiculously difficult to climb out of. There will always be differences of experience and thus different connections to different meanings. The greater our difference the louder it will get echoed back by the norms surrounding us. We have every right to the reactions we feel but we cannot expect the world around us to rewrite itself on our behalf. It will always be a process of meeting each other half way, of accepting that our experiences can differ greatly, and of embracing meaning rather than shying away from it.
Perhaps if we had a greater appreciation of the meanings behind them we might view words and their potential impact with greater respect, perhaps not toss them about so casually, and perhaps not be so quick to feel and act dismissive of impacts and reactions we might not share of fully understand.