The power of words and Changing the world

OK, this is a separate essay.  It arose from comments on several of the recent diaries, on some misunderstanding of some things I was trying to say (and since at least two intelligent people misunderstood, I guess I wasn’t clear) but it’s separate.  I’m not going to link to anything else, I’d like to start fresh.  I’m not GBCWing, so I am here for the long haul and want to make this site as good as it can be.  But I do not intend, here, to be ‘calling out’ anyone.  I’m not trying to pick a fight, I’m trying to clear something up, and make my position known.  

There’s an old saying

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me

.  I think it’s one of the dumbest sayings ever.  Of course words can hurt.  Or inspire.  They can lead people to war, or to peace.  Different people are differently vulnerable to words, just as different people are differently vulnerable to a punch in the nose (try punching a karate master in the nose, see what happens).  Some of us are strong, some of us are weak, some of us are damaged.  But no one is invulnerable.

Who knows this? We all do.  But a master of this is the thoroughly despicable Fred Phelps.  Do his words hurt?  Damn straight.  They’re designed to hurt, and they’re designed well. Phelps is a horrible man who thoroughly repels me, but he’s not an idiot.

Everyone against ‘hate speech’ knows this. Why do some words for ethnic groups sound different than others?  They all refer to the same groups, don’t they?  But words have power.

Words can inspire, as well.  here is a comment from a dailyKos diary that moved me to tears.

or this one:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

Power.  More power, perhaps, than any particular action King could have taken

When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he supposedly said “So this is the little lady who made this big war”.  That’s power.

Words can change the world.  For good or for ill.  

I have heard that Hitler called off a planned invasion of England because of Churchill’s “Fight them on the beaches” speech.

Choice of words matters.  It isn’t ‘just semantics’.  If it were ‘just semantics’ then none of this would really matter.  King’s great speech would have been just as powerful if it went something like:

“Although we aren’t yet completely free, it is nevertheless still important to remember that we can maintain some level of optimism”

I’ve heard that FDR’s great line “This is a day which will live in infamy” was ad-libbed, that his speech writer wrote “this is a very bad day” – well, they mean the same, don’t they?

We can change the world.  With words.  We can hurt each other.  With words.  We can use words well, or badly.  But we will use them better if we recognize that they are powerful, and that the choice of words is critical.

I think we all know this, I just think we forget, sometimes.


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    • plf515 on December 1, 2007 at 4:18 pm

    I just felt like I had to write this


    “Now that the wars are coming to an end, I wish you to prosper in peace. May all mortals from now on live like one people in concord and for mutual advancement. Consider the world as your country, with laws common to all and where the best will govern irrespective of tribe. I do not distinguish among men, as the narrow-minded do, both among Greeks and Barbarians. I am not interested in the descendance of the citizens or their racial origins. I classify them using one criterion: their virtue. For me every virtuous foreigner is a Greek and every evil Greek worse than a Barbarian. If differences ever develop between you never have recourse to arms, but solve them peacefully. If necessary, I should be your arbitrator. You must not consider God like an autocratic despot, but as a common Father of all; so your behavior may resemble the life siblings have in a family. On my part I should consider all equals,white or blacks, and wish you all to be not only subjects of the Commonwealth, but participants and partners. As much as this depends on me, I should try to bring about what I promised. The oath we made over tonight’s libations hold onto as a Contract of Love”.

    – Alexander the Great at Opis.

    • Armando on December 1, 2007 at 4:27 pm

    It would be an incredibly callous thing to say. Also inaccurate.

    The WAR was made by the South. Not Harriet Beecher Stowe, one of the greatest American women in our history.

  2. which can bring us together or tear us apart as we have seen both here and in the world……….

    it depends on what each of us is actualy committed to….

    our dificulty comes when we do not distinguish our espoused beliefs and our tacit beliefs from each other…..

    so much of the recent conflict has come from our cultural confusion on this and the latent confusion each of us possesses in this area………

    we all realize by the time we hit the playground that there are two sets of rules ….

    the espoused set, what we say we believe and what we say we are suppossed to do……

    and the tacit, what we actualy believe and wont say and what we actualy do and wont admit….

    that is why being a normalized member of most cultures requires us to become functional schizophrenics….

  3. … the words aren’t near as important to me as the intent behind them.

    I would rather someone say “fuck you, you blithering idiot,” than use kindly-seeming words to distort or mischararacterize what I had said.

    I think it’s a lot trickier than simply looking at the words a person has chosen to put their thoughts and feelings out.

    I will forgive a lot if the intent appears sincere to me and I agree with the content.

    On the other hand, a person could have the greatest gift of rhetoric on the order of MLK or FDR, but if their intent is something I’m opposed to, those words become only a vehicle to spread hatred.

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