My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, June 5, 2020

It's NOT Just Words

It’s not “just words.”

It’s never “just words.”

When we are five and have to learn to shrug off the bruised feelings of being repeatedly called a “doo-doo head” on the playground, we learn perhaps one of the most pernicious and ubiquitous lies of our culture: that it takes a stick or a stone to really hurt us and words don’t have that power.

Honestly, teachers and parents should come back around when kids are ten and say, “Yeah, that’s not really true. We told you that because you were five, and we didn’t really want to deal with “doo-doo head” like it was a hate crime. Wait until you hear what we left out about the Pilgrims.”

I’m always a little surprised when I’m moderating comments over on my Facebook page and someone––who is absolutely always a white man––tries the “you’re afraid of ‘just words’” gambit. Um….have you read…..well an ANYTHING lately? (That joke works less well when you could have literally read anything––a book, an article, a blog, a short story, a poem, a...)  All you have to do is read anything to see that words are far from powerless. 

Out in the world, you might expect that folks have less ability to see how the language around them is literally altering and shaping their perceptions. (“I can’t tell you why, but I sure do want some Arby’s all of a sudden.”) But of all people you’d expect people to understand what words can do, it’s would be the folks who know how certain works shaped the path of history or how something they read left them devastated. They ought to know all too well the power that language holds to essentially warp our perceptions. Prolific readers and wordsmiths that spend all day sighing at those memes of non-English words with no good translation or perfectly cromulent neologisms then turn around somehow think that words are insignificant, powerless things.

I mean, I get the idea. The words do not literally rip the skin off someone’s skull like you just walked into a gritty reboot of X-men. It is all too easy to pretend that in the marketplace of ideas, the worthy words will merit out. And to some degree, that can be true if the marketplace of ideas has a few ground rules (like we don’t start over every conversation having to prove inequality even exists and that we understand the paradox of tolerance), but the ability of words to actually cause mental and emotional harm and be catalyst for physical harm is undeniable, no matter how open your market might be. 

Ironically, mincing words would be all too easy here, so we should be as plain as possible. Words are the building blocks of the ultimate human power. We are a species of stories and if you control the story, you control humanity. 


Corporations that have screwed up and get caught destroying the environment or using abhorrent unsafe practices spend millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions, and even BILLIONS of dollars to hire the greatest experts on the planet at using words to shift blame, and they call upon these experts to complicate what are actually simple issues of malfeasance and greed while assuring people that their most important concerns are their customers instead of their own bottom lines.

Countries’ administrations include entire wings dedicated to how they word things, with everything from highly trained professionals talking to the media to a carefully crafted public relations message to framing nothing as their fault and everything as the somehow the opposition’s. One of the reasons the United States’ current administration has been less effective than it wanted to be at so many of its more horrific policies isn't because some adult in the room pumped the brakes. It is because they have continually slipped up and said the quiet parts out loud, eliciting a powerful pushback. Instead of slick talking points, we got “human capital stock,” “shit hole countries,” and “alternative facts.” Don't think for a second we wouldn't be further down this road if some of those people had been a little slicker with those "just words."

Legislation with clear agendas, like stripping rights or legalizing discrimination, is framed as “freedom of religion”; clear tax cuts––so that the 1% do not have to pay into any codified form of social contract for all the infrastructure and educated workforce they enjoy––are called “relief” and framed as creating jobs (they don’t). Every few years, these failing policies are repackaged––with WORDS––that they might continue. (“Horse and sparrow,” “trickle down,” “supply side economics,” “job creation”….it’s all the same theory that giving rich people money to hoard is somehow good for the economy.)

Stochastic terrorism can be provoked with little more than a few words in clear repudiation of a specific class of people, like one might find in a leader who spews hateful rhetoric.

As I am writing this, the story is going viral of a white woman in Central Park who knew full well that a phone call to the police (a call consisting only of WORDS) would cause the black man she was threatening no end of trouble––possibly violent trouble. She was weaponizing white supremacy and knew she was doing it. 

All with words. “Just” words.

Language is the superpower with which humans have dominated everything they see. Its vast power is the fundamental building block to every lesser ability we have, from splicing genes to nuclear explosions. Language has given us culture, which enables our environmental adaptations to happen with unimaginable alacrity compared to evolution, taking place in less than a generation instead of hundreds. In years instead of generations, we develop immunities that wipe out those diseases that threaten us. With language, we craft narratives that become vise-grip means of social control. We get the victims of oppression to basically oppress themselves by calling their concerns “crazy” or “aggressive.” The right story will justify invasions, topple empires, 

With nothing but “words,” we relegate entire groups of our fellow humans to underclass and even subhuman status and justify their treatment. 

And if that still doesn't convince you, just say, "Black Lives Matter" and watch pretty much 100% of these same "just words" white guys turn a lovely shade of purple and begin to write paragraphs about how they are the real victims of racism. Just three little..........words.

A single word can bring with it the full force of a history of oppression, struggle, and intergenerational trauma. Anyone who mocks folks harmed by "just words," as if the sound waves themselves must be forceful enough to shatter bone if it is to count as harm, has only revealed their breathtaking ignorance of how language works, mental and emotional damage, and a rich history of propaganda. Not one war, not one atrocity, not one pivotal moment in history (good or bad) happened without words shaping every second leading up to them. 

So it’s long past time that a liberal, pluralistic society retire the sophist idea that somehow words are themselves incapable of doing harm, and while expression itself should generally be protected with few exceptions, the attempt to shame anyone who visits a consequence on folks using harmful speech is, at best, fundamentally ignorant of the power of words.

And at worst attempting to preemptively manipulate anyone who dares to hold them accountable for that harm*.

(*Ironically, done with words.)


  1. Really well explained Chris. Mind if I copy this and use it as a lesson fr my students?

    1. If you have the ability to credit me in some way I'd like that (by name or URL link), but if not or it's wildly inconvenient, that's okay. This is more the kind of writing I'm just happy to see in the world.

  2. Exactly so.
    I’ve thought about this topic too, and I said “Yes!” aloud more than once while reading. Words are a way *in*.
    I’m so glad you wrote this, thank you!