For as long as I can remember, I’ve been intrigued by language. This connection to language is part of the reason why I became a professor of communication, why I write this blog, why I love to read. So, I imagine it will come as little surprise when I tell you that I believe words do matter.
Words can hurt us – as do sticks and stones. But, words can also lift us up.It’s up to us – in our use and interpretation of language – to decide what they will do. In this sense, words can be seen actions, as well as paths to action.
As a young pre-teen, I learned that words mattered to shape meaning, and to outline the paths we believe are possible.
I was an overweight child, and I still remember some of the harshest taunts and names that came from other kids. I learned in those young years that how I looked mattered if I wanted social status on the playground. So, what did I do? Toward the end of seventh grade, I starved myself until I had lost over 35 pounds, and weighed about 95 pounds–in clothes. On a 12-year-old, 4’11” frame – that’s a lot of weight to lose in what was a very short amount of time. So much weight, in fact, the school nurse called my house to tell my mother.
Following that weight loss, the words I heard were: “You look great!” “You lost so much weight – that’s awesome!” “You’re so pretty.”
What did I learn from the combination of these words? Being fat is shameful. Being skinny pleases people.
These words treat our bodies as objects, and teach us that our worth can be measured by some in this society more by how we look than by who we are. Do we have to accept this lesson? Of course not. However, resisting widespread cultural beliefs is a complicated process – and requires the support and words of others.
As a professor of communication, I have learned the words and the rational arguments that explain how this objectification is harmful to our psyche, our relationships, and our well being. And, yet, I still struggle when I see my body in the mirror. As much as I want to believe that our society has evolved beyond this type of objectification, I read and listen to the public discourse and think, yeah, not so much. I hear the things I tell myself when I look in the mirror, and I know those words have affected me deeply.
Body talk is just one way that words shape action and meaning. Words harm and help in many other ways, and I’m sure each of you can think of examples from your own experience. In some cases, these words may have a positive effect. But, in other cases, the impact may be much more negative for our quality of life.
In case you think I am speaking in coded terms only about the recent presidential campaign and election, let me be clear: I am not only referring to that event; however, it is much on my mind, and it prompted this post. By all accounts, election 2016 was a brutal and vulgar example of the impact of words for action and meaning. It was a frustrating and disappointing display of how dangerous words can be – and, how those words lead to action.
Beyond the election, however, I’m speaking of all the ways we communicate with each other – in the mainstream media, on social media feeds, and in interpersonal conversations. Over the years, it seems that this discourse has gotten ever more polarized and judgmental. Each to each.
I feel lucky that I have a social “bubble” that is filled mostly with positive words and optimistic people. Even so, there are enough ugly judgments, name calling, shaming, and in some cases bullying to remind me time and again that words matter. Words reveal our values, our beliefs, and our actions. Through our words, we create a space to enact our values and beliefs. Through our words, we create meaning about what is acceptable – and what is not.
For me, it is not acceptable to talk about people as objects of sex or ridicule.
It is disrespectful to shame people people because of how they look or things that they cannot control.
It is dangerous to make judgments of entire collections of people based on singular characteristics or demographics.
And, if you want someone to listen to your point of view, it’s probably best not to call them hateful names or speak of enacting violence against them. I know that I tend to get pretty defensive when that happens, so I’m sure others do as well.
In each of these cases, some may dismiss the discourse as “only words,” or just “locker room talk.” However, these words give space for action. Words, when used in this way, become obstacles to experiencing the freedom and rights that are afforded by our country–whether that is through the constraint of law or the pressure of our peers.
Disagreement is the sign of a rich and vibrant society. Our ability to share our diverse beliefs is a hallmark of our First Amendment. I enjoy a substantive political debate because I can learn much from it. The key word is substantive.
But, disagreement that relies on words of discrimination, defamation or threat will destroy this democratic experiment. It is important to recognize acts of hate to make clear that, as a civilized society, we will not stand for it. However, it is rarely useful or productive to return hate with more hate.
We don’t have to use words as weapons. We can use them to lift each other up – instead of tearing each other down. The endurance sport community offers a great example for the value of words to support each other, to show concern for each other, to create paths for excellence in action.
Consider the value of a funny sign or the words of a spectator along the side of a race course. Those words can bring us out of a funk when we need it most.
We also thrive in the positive chatter of the community, celebrating successes and commiserating failures.
Many of us rely on mantras to help us push through the dark moments. Positive words can help us see the hope that is possible, and the strength of determination that lives in the human spirit.
The rise in polarizing words that lead to hateful actions discourages me. Despite this concern, I celebrate the spaces in our community where we understand that words matter. We continue to use words to lift each other up, to help counter the negativity we have experienced or witnessed throughout our lives.
We can engage in a different kind of locker room talk to build each other up, instead of tearing each other down. Our locker room talk acknowledges difference without being threatened by it. Our locker rooms allow for disagreement without hate, support without judgment, and acceptance without shame.
So, when I feel discouraged, I remember the words we share with other. I have hope our community remains an example for what is still good, still right and still admirable in the human spirit.