Yeah, your parents tell you that “words will never hurt you,” but they lie. It’s a white lie, because they want to protect you, but it’s a lie and we all know it. Words are the most powerful weapon ever invented. The pen and the sword and all that.
In high school, I was one of those kids who sat in class and never said anything. I got good grades, but I never contributed much. My Government teacher, though, based your grade partly on classroom participation, and he made it clear you couldn’t do better than a C if you didn’t say something at least once a semester. So I did. Once a semester. You also had to do some kind of presentation. The most dreaded day on the calendar. I’ve blocked it out of my memory.
But one day the class was discussing capital punishment; the speaker labelled it “legalized murder.” I raised my hand to point out that “murder” is defined as an illegal act, so “legalized murder” was a misrepresentation (not that I spoke so well). The point was made and ignored pretty much immediately and discussion continued. So why do I remember this instance out of three years of high school experience? Because I was right, I was on point, but not simply about the definition of murder. I was trying to make a larger point that I didn’t even understand I was trying to make: words have power. Words define the debate, the debate informs opinion, opinions inform votes, and votes make policy. (I am editing my own words even as I write them, proving my point even if you can’t see it.)
I recently entered an on-line debate regarding a point of grammar. I took the position that the old rule, widely ignored for many years, was valid and breaking it was merely imprecise communication. I included a recent example that I believed supported me. I was pointedly accused of ignoring certain marginalized groups who might be “offended” by the rigorous application of the rule. I left the discussion because I while I was interested in debate, I had no taste for argument.
And yet, even this short exchange was educational. First, debating on-line is a fool’s game. It’s laughably easy for words to be misunderstood in face-to-face interactions, particularly if the subject is controversial. On line, you’re almost guaranteed to be misunderstood. Second, words matter. Even in a completely theoretical situation, the very idea that someone not even involved in the conversation (so far as one knows) could be offended can inflate into a debate and explode into an argument in the space of a few words. (One wonders what might have happened had I pursued my thesis in that Government class.)
Writers are used to reviewing and revising their work, often several times, before the public sees it. You would think that this example would inform our more mundane communications as well, at least on-line, if not act as a filter before we speak.
You would think so. But until we fully understand how powerful a weapon our words are, we are going to continue to shoot our mouths off.