Watch What You Say: On The Accountability of Words

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.

10 thoughts on “Watch What You Say: On The Accountability of Words

  1. This was a wonderful and well-written blog – thank you!

    As a white heterosexual male, it is very easy for me to walk through this life, utilizing heteronormative claims to explain what is normal, and what should be marginalized. However, as a feminist, I too have consistently looked at my own behavior with a microscope, in an effort to be egalitarian in my words and in my actions.

    The emotions (anger, rage) that erupted out of the tragedy from Arizona are understandable, but at the same time, they were rife with words that do not inform or help us. Specifically, I saw much of the blogosphere ignite on charges of political rhetoric being the cause. Later on, when YouTube videos began to surface from the shooter, I saw words like lunatic, nutjob and “insane” pop up, which again gives us no real understanding of the shooter’s motives, or his life experience.

    Finally, I know how you feel with regard to the power of words. When Tyler Clementi committed suicide, I wrote about the power of words and challenged my readers to look at their own words and behaviors. While I have no idea whether there was any real impact, I do believe it is our duty and responsiblity as citizens to challenge our friends, our family members, and anyone else who claims that words hold no power (here is my blog in case you were interested in my approach:

    Thanks again for your thoughts, and definitely keep challenging the students, because I really believe it is our best bet at making any “real” changes.

    1. thank you, matt! the constant challenging (of ourselves and others) to be mindful of what we say and the impact of words/language is certainly important.

  2. I really liked this. I get teased a lot because I have a hard time articulating myself. I stumble over my words and it takes me forever to get a sentence out. The one time I brought the teasing up to my mother she told me something I will never forget. She said its okay that I take awhile to speak because words are powerful and once you put them out there, you can’t take them back because no one lets you forget.

    Anyway, I have a few friends that do say “that’s gay” and when I confront that about them I get the response of “you’re too sensitive”. They do not want to admit that there is negativity behind the phrase. If you only say the phrase when you’re irritated about a certain situation or when you don’t like something then how can you say there is nothing negative about the phrase? How does the phrase not mean anything?

    I have a white friend who actually asked why she couldn’t call me the N-word! Her reasoning is we’re best friends she should be able to say anything to me and the word doesn’t mean anything. She means no harm. Riiiiiiiiight

    You know that saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”?? Yeah, that’s bull. If they don’t hurt why are kids killing themselves and each other over words? Or want to fight simply because someone insulted them by calling them a slut or something.

    If you ask me, it’s not people being too sensitive, it’s people being too INsensitive.

    1. “If you ask me, it’s not people being too sensitive, it’s people being too INsensitive.”

      Yes!! That!!

  3. Words create context and perception. Words also essentially create classification.

    When used in language to solidify abstract thought it creates reality.

    It is such a simple concept but yet most of us (feminists included; we are not exempt from criticism) don’t fully understand and appreciate it.

    Great post!

  4. Baldwin says that we use language to control our environment.

    Thank you for sharing your narrative. It both pragmatic and hopeful, which is a delicate dance in 2011.

    When people of color tell me language isn’t powerful, I then ask them “how would you feel if your boss called you a ____er?” Then we have a different conversation.


  5. Brilliant article. Can’t agree less with you. We need to exude positivity. Thanks for saying perfectly that which has been on my mind, especially the ‘OTHERS’ that the media had always referred to. I remember when the Polish president’s plane crushed recently, all we heard was the Polish President and ‘so much others’ have died. They died incognito.

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