Some thoughts on words and power, prompted by recent debates in print and social media

“Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, […] how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne

Writing is an inherently ethically charged act. Words are never neutral. Each time we exercise the force of our polemic and employ rhetoric to argue, persuade, or provoke, we have a responsibility to ask ourselves: what are the effects of our words likely to be, and who will be served by them? Of course there can be unintended outcomes. People read and interpret differently. Someone will always be offended. The meaning of words does not reside wholly with their producer. And yet, some effects are wholly predictable, aren’t they?

It is all too easy to use words against the marginalized and vulnerable (even if we occupy the position of the marginalized and vulnerable ourselves). The fact is that we all internalize the prejudices of the world in which we live. Slurs can be unthinkingly repeated by those of us who would rationally challenge the beliefs upon which they rest.* But the effects of slurs, whether intended or not, whether explicitly and maliciously written or carelessly and casually insinuated, can only be to perpetuate the status quo. Unless we are really happy with the system in which we live—a late-capitalistic hetero-patriarchy—we might want to think very carefully about any words we put out into the world that can have the net effect of shoring it up while pitting potential allies in discontent against each other. Context matters too. When a profit-making publication is paying a person to produce words, and when more money will be made out of perceived outrages committed, the onus on the critical writer to act ethically and deliver a message of social commentary without repeating society’s bigotry is all the more urgent. Yet even on our own blogs, on Twitter, in the free media that is the World Wide Web, how much more efficacious activism would be if we applied these ethical considerations to all our words.

Too often, sight of a potential common political goal is lost. Groups, self-defining along the lines of identity politics, engage in the much-discussed “oppression Olympics”, misdirecting righteous anger at each other rather than at the systems that produce and maintain the conditions of their shared oppression. A concerted effort on the part of a marginalized group, motivated by the passion of injustice felt, can be tremendously potent and have effects that are devastating. But what a waste of effort if such resistant, transformative zeal is misdirected, not at the institutions that perpetuate iniquity, but rather at a member of another group also urging change but using unwise words carelessly or angrily.

Writers interested in social justice need to think about strategies for promoting resistance and commonality. We need to avoid further dividing those who share an investment in challenging normativity, but whose approaches issue from (at once entrenched and precarious) exclusionary identitarian positions. A question to ask ourselves, before putting down words on paper or a screen, has to be: am I speaking truth to power or am I attacking those who are already disadvantaged by the system? This is not a matter of “political correctness”. It is, rather, both an expedient political strategy and a commitment to the ethic of avoiding causing harm to others. For, make no mistake, words can do harm.

*In cases where we are unintentional mouthpieces for a bigotry we do not believe in, but that is so prevalent in our culture that we soak in it and unwittingly reproduce it, we can respond responsibly and graciously when criticized. And we can learn from such criticisms in order to become better writers and readers. I try to do this. I will go on trying to do this.

6 thoughts on “Some thoughts on words and power, prompted by recent debates in print and social media

  1. Pingback: Intersectionality, privilege and women in academia | Caroline Magennis

  2. Coming out from 50+ years of white male privilege to be the person I have wanted to be, I find myself in need of an inhabited island. I thought I could just be me and fit in a world I had known. I didn’t realize or understand depression. “Be what others expect or be yourself?”, the answer to that sound obvious to most but after living with alternative-gender baggage stuffed in a segmented soul I have learned the obvious, the whole self might not be the easiest, right or even sustainable.

    Your clear and focused on the responsibility-of-communication problem article here has the strength of focus on an old issue, one not charged, one not sexy but one of the most importance, “social justice”.

    So this week, when I find myself looking for an inhabited safe place of like mis-fits or wondering if there might be a path back to the safety of a closet and gender normative projection, you suggest that there might still be hope of “social justice” that utopia where people don’t judge and can love without regard of “norms”.

    Thank you, thank you for hope,

  3. This is brilliant. Why do people assume that “freedom” (of expression) doesn’t come with responsibility? Thanks for saying this.

  4. Pingback: Some thoughts on words and power, prompted by recent debates in print and social media | Business and Management Resources |

  5. Pingback: FWSA Blog » Intersectionality, Privilege and Women in Academia

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