Words and Responsibility

Okay.  Okay.  Way back last September, I wrote a post about the power of words.  And right now, I’m going to revisit that idea because I think the message bears repeating.  And this time I’m going to drop the fancy metaphors and be more explicit in my message.

Words have power.  And if you are not careful, if you wield that power irresponsibly, you can break something.

Words are an intrinsic part of how we as humans communicate.  They carry the weight of so much beyond their dictionary meanings.  They carry context and connotation and history.  They are the building blocks of the stories we tell about ourselves and each other.  We build the patterns of our thoughts with words.

For example, if you call every dog you meet a puppy, you are priming yourself to think of dogs in a particular way:  cute, innocent, playful.  Not all dogs are cute or playful, necessarily, but there is no harm in giving these creatures the benefit of the doubt.

If you refer to an entire class of people in terms of swarms and infestations and other animalistic words, you are priming yourself to think of them as animals.  You are literally de-humanizing them.  You are reducing the rich tapestry of individual human experiences and stories to a mindless horde driven by instinct and appetite.

That is a lie.  And it is a harmful lie.  It is a lie that literally kills human beings.

Words have power.

A lot of people freak out about what they call Political Correctness.  As if the language police are going to rip them from their homes in the middle of the night because they used a slur.  Like we’re being hampered by having to watch our language all the time.

Listen.  Words have been used to reduce people, to make them the Other, so it’s easier to view them with contempt, to ignore their voices, and to kill them in the streets.  More and more people are realizing this, and working to grow and nurture a language that is truer, and that isn’t built on lies that exclude and harm.  This isn’t a bad thing.  It’s a part of growing up:  learning that what we did in our ignorance was stupid and harmful, and trying to be better as adults.

Think about it this way:  we all did stupid things as kids.  We all probably had that moment where we did something mean or small-minded to someone else who didn’t deserve it.  Maybe you pulled on a classmate’s hair and they cried and you laughed because you thought, in that moment, that it was funny.  Maybe you were goaded to it by your classmates.  Maybe your friends called this person names all the time, made it clear they were an outsider, and so of course they deserved your contempt.  And then you grew up and realized, no, that was a terrible and mean thing you did.  You grew up.

As a kid, in that moment, you had power over that person, and you used it irresponsibly.  But now you don’t.  There’s literally nothing stopping you from yanking on people’s hair, but hopefully you’ve learned that it’s bad to use your power to harm others, especially if they have less power than you.

Words have power.

This is me, as someone who loves words and loves the richness of language, asking you to be aware of that.  Asking you to stop using animalistic words to talk about people.  Because it is a lie.

Words have power.  Words have power.  Words have power.

The words you choose to use have power.  And it is up to you to wield that power responsibly.

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