To understand the power of words, one need only pay attention to the Harvey Weinstein story this week. All those women telling their stories, breaking their silence, and bringing down and serial predator who has been on the loose for decades. Their words came together and brought down a giant.
But what we don’t talk about enough is the violence of words.
A few examples: consider how many individuals and groups with heinous intentions have been emboldened by our president’s rhetoric. Consider how harsh words are used in the heat of anger. Consider how trolls and assholes use their language online to intimidate, insult, and oppress others.
After the Las Vegas shooting, I noticed something disturbing: often, when someone spoke up online about needing to address gun control, angry responses often went like this: “It’s really too bad you weren’t at that concert.”
Of course, threats of violence online aren’t new. And they’re pervasive enough that we don’t really even talk about them anymore. Which is actually pretty disturbing. But there’s even more to be concerned about.
Perhaps we can understand how certain words reek of violence. But it’s not only the obvious words that incite or enhance violence.
Here’s an example I’ve been thinking about (something Jackson Katz discusses in his TED Talk; link at the bottom). When we talk about rape, sexual harassment, and sexual misconduct, we speak in passive terms. X number of women were raped. X in X women experience sexual harassment. Note that we don’t discuss how many men are involved. Perpetrators are implied but are nonexistent in our language. How many men rape? How many men assault? Language shapes our response. Language perpetuates rape culture.
There are many conservatives who rail against what they call “political correctness.” Often in this context we hear about the so-called “war on Christmas” or how people can’t say they don’t like gay people for fear of condemnation. But that’s just my interpretation of it. Really, I don’t actually know what people mean by “political correctness,” and I’m not sure they do either.
I’ve said some terrible things in my life. I think we’d all be lying if any of us claimed otherwise. High school is full of insults that use violent terminology like “retarded” or “gay” or “slut.” It took me a while to recognize my own language issues and to start to correct them. When I’ve spoken up about it or encouraged others to use different terms, I hear a lot of “I don’t mean anything by it” or “People shouldn’t be so offended by everything.” I think part of the issue is we don’t like being challenged on what we’re saying, because we don’t think we’re directly harming anyone. We don’t want to think we’re perpetuating racism or sexism by something we say only to those close to us. But our language shapes our thinking. When you adjust the way you use language and pay attention to how your words might affect other people, you become conscious of how much ableism, racism, and sexism permeates our lives via language.
Words can be violent. They can be silencing and oppressive. Yes, it’s kind of a pain to watch what you say and to find new terms rather than your go-to words. For example, I’ve tried to catch myself when it comes to language that marginalizes mental illness. “Crazy” is one I say all the time, and it’s been hard to stop saying that. “Crazy” is what I’m used to saying when things don’t make sense or are different from the norm. Maybe “crazy” isn’t that bad, but I don’t want to contribute to the stigma of mental illness, so I try to use better words. And I’ll tell you this: with every minor change to my word choices I’ve made over the years, I’ve noticed a different way of thinking. Language shapes our reality and our understanding of everything. We can only make meaning by putting words to what we see and experience.
Words have power, and language shapes the world around us. I know that so many don’t understand why they should change the way they use language, and I get that no one thinks they mean anything nefarious by using particular terms. But I argue that paying attention to your language choices alters the way you perceive things. And, in my opinion, if simply using different words helps me avoid hurting another person, it’s worth it to me to be mindful of my language.
Right now feels like such a critical moment in the way we handle sexual assault. The Weinstein story is horrific, but to me, the most horrific part is how silence was imposed upon the many victims of this predator. That silence was toxic, and it led to more and more women being subjected to assault and harassment, to women being forced to live with these stories silently. We can’t use language and silence to deemphasize the perpetrators. They are the only guilty party in sexual misconduct. We must change the way we talk about sexual violence, and we must acknowledge that our language habits place the spotlight and, all too often, the blame or responsibility on the victim. Unless we change our language, we will never change our culture.
Similarly, we have to understand that those of us who come from a place of privilege too often use language to silence, shame, undermine, and demean others. Our language is inherently ableist, our language is inherently racist, our language is inherently sexist. We may not mean it to be, and we may mean well, but we’re using a language built on systemic oppression. Nothing changes until we change our words. Nothing changes until we pay attention to what we’re saying. Nothing changes until we make a commitment to one another to use better words. There’s no need to get defensive about it – we’re doing as we’ve been taught, and we’re having to make a concerted effort to change the narrative. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
For further reading:
Political correctness: how the right invented a phantom enemy by Moira Weigel
The Careless Language of Sexual Violence by Roxane Gay
Questions and answers about ableist language by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
Cutting Fatphobic Language Out of Your Life by Erin McKelle
TED Talk: Violence against women – it’s a men’s issue by Jackson Katz