In a communication course last year my students and I reached an impasse when they insisted that words have no power. When I challenged their overuse of popular, yet problematic, slang that is potentially offensive and harmful (i.e., saying something is “gay” or “retarded”) they claimed that words don’t mean anything, they are “just words.” As a communication scholar and professor I offered theoretical and practical evidence to dismantle their argument but I felt I could better show them than tell them. I continually challenged their thinking and came to our next class meeting with a list of offensive terms that I went on to read and call out to them. My performance was not as effective as I would have liked but I did succeed in forcing them to think about the emotional impact of language and how we are all complicit in the rhetoric we use. Words are not innocent, regardless of intent.
I was devastated on Saturday when I learned about the shooting in Arizona. I have been preparing a syllabus for my Communication & Diversity class and the incident reminded me why our communication practices have to be ethical. Sheriff Clarence Dupnik was not off base when he insinuated that hateful vitriolic political rhetoric is not blameless in this despicable event. While I set out to teach my students to respect and appreciate difference, I am fully aware that we live in a society that seeks to punish people who don’t look/think/act/talk/believe/worship/live like the majority. I struggle to establish a space for reconciliation, particularly when the loudest voices are generally the ones of dissent and disrespect, echoing from the far right and the far left.
My life and work has always challenged canonical narratives of what is right, normal and moral—but as a black woman no one ever uses my existence or positionality as a standard by which to compare other lives. The words and act of naming, or lack thereof, of experience is paramount. And it is relevant to note that the stories and realities of people who are “different” are oftentimes dismissed. Our stories, and lives, are made to seem insignificant, like we don’t count. Initially, media reports of the victims from the Arizona shooting elaborated on the Congresswoman, federal judge, and nine year old girl but the other victims, particularly the ones who died and were over the age of 70, were grouped together as “and others.” (How many news stories have focused on them?) I realize that focusing on the ‘big names’ is a strategic tactic of the news media, but it deserves critique. Were the only lives worth talking about those of the elite, the young, the rich? All of their lives, all of our lives, count regardless of age, ability, political affiliation, religion, education, skin color, sexual orientation, etc. We all matter! As a feminist I am invested in human rights, respect, and equality. And I constantly check myself because I know that for every representation/experience I highlight, another voice/story is being ignored.
Having recently read my mentor, H.L. Goodall’s book Counter-Narrative: How Progressive Academics Can Challenge Extremists and Promote Social Justice, I am invested in a narrative of hope, not fear. Goodall challenges progressive professors to “teach propaganda theory and critical approaches to combating it in our classes.” He urges his readers to be informed rather than utterly dismissive of extremist narratives so that we know how to dismantle them. In many ways his book predicts the dangers of radical, extremist ideologies and introduces the reader to some of the extremist thinking that has framed a space for literal violence. He offers strategies for a counter-narrative to hate and a move towards social justice.
I want to think that I live in a world where anything is possible—and that there is far more good than evil, far more love than hate. I have to be hopeful because that is the narrative I want to live out, the future I would want my children to inherit. I am hopeful but I am also wide awake and with my eyes fully open I recognize that we have a long way to go. But I refuse to be silenced by fear or held hostage by ignorance.
My students’ assumption was misguided. Words are not “just words,” they are seeds. We need to be deliberate about how and where we plant them.