Friday, January 30, 2009


As I child, I remember feeling terrible when people verbally abused me. “What is this awful feeling?” I thought. “I feel like someone hit me with a sledgehammer; I just want to sit down and cry.” My mother told me never to verbally castigate anyone. She told me not to call people names, or to make jokes about them, or tell them they were stupid, incompetent, ugly or retarded. “You don’t like the way you feel when people say things to you, so don’t inflict the same misery on them.” That was the reasoning. It made sense to me. I hated how I felt when someone mocked me or yelled at me, so I tried my best never to do the same to others.

Yet my mother also employed a pernicious falsehood to conceal the truth about verbal power. “Sticks and stones will break your bones,” she said, “but words can never hurt you.” In my heart, I knew that was not true. Words did hurt me. Although I repeated the rhyme when I faced verbal abuse, I never really believed it. I knew how I felt when someone called me a mean-sounding name or threatened to beat me. It hurt like hell, no matter what my mother said. Now, I see even more that words hurt. Often, words can inflict far worse pain than sticks or stones.

Human speech is a two-edged sword. On the positive side, it enables us to communicate our thoughts, feelings and intentions for mutually beneficial activity. It allows us to pass information from our minds to others, increasing knowledge. It allows us to coordinate effectively with one another, allowing us to organize societies and common values. It empowers us to express our personalities and reveal our memories. Without speech, no one would know what other people have seen, heard, thought, felt, experienced, touched or believed. We would be left to infer things based on external signs; and that is rarely enough to get the full picture about events outside our sight. In short, speech—and writing, of course—are the foundations of civilization. In his Politics, Aristotle wrote that speech was inherently good, because it allowed human beings to work harmoniously together for common enrichment. In many cases, he was right.

But there are many cases in which Aristotle was wrong about speech. Quite simply, it is not always good. Thomas Hobbes famously illustrated that speech can harm just as much as it can help. In Leviathan (1651), Hobbes noted that human beings use speech to “deceive themselves” and “deceive others.” Leviathan, Part I, Of Man; Chap. IV (Of Speech). Hobbes even compared human verbal malice to an intrinsic natural trait: “[F]or seeing nature hath armed living creatures, some with teeth, some with horns, and some with hands to grieve an enemy, it is but an abuse of Speech, to grieve him with the tongue.” Id.

How true. Words are man’s natural weapons. While words may lead to harmony and cooperation, they can also yield fraud, deceit, conspiracy, dishonesty, misrepresentation, defamation, browbeating and malicious cruelty. People use words to destroy others’ feelings and reputations. They use words to intimidate, threaten, steal and tyrannize. In a more direct way, words enable men to destroy one another, even without personal ill will. Combined with organization, government, technology and interlocking personal loyalties, words can cause wars and massacres. With the words: “Open Fire on coordinates 2 0 9 West by 2 0 7 North,” an artillery commander can instruct a battery to lay waste an entire town, killing hundreds. With the words: “Operation Barnstorm is in effect; the order is confirmed,” a President can set events in motion leading to nuclear holocaust.

I would take sticks and stones over words in these circumstances.

Words are deadly. But in an abstract sense, it is amazing how powerful they have become. After all, spoken words are nothing but air transferred from the lungs over the palate and tongue, yielding a particular sound that triggers a mental image when a person hears them. Written words are nothing but visible symbols that trigger a similar image when a person sees them. Intrinsically, they are nothing. Words signify nothing to a duck; they are just noise. Only through human agreement, recognition and understanding have they assumed their true power. When mothers say: “Words can never hurt you,” they think too abstractly. Words may be little more than manipulated air, but they are mental triggers. What begins as mere air transforms into tangible action; and that can easily hurt you. For example, a judge may utter these sounds: “I sentence you to death by gas chamber.” In the abstract, those words do not hurt the prisoner; they are mere sounds. But they trigger a series of physical actions by others that lead to his death, even many years later.

I have learned never to underestimate speech. While I never forget that words are simply symbols, I recognize how much power they have assumed through mutual agreement. Words bring out the best and the worst in human beings. They can build civilizations as easily as they can destroy them. They can heal human beings as easily as they can kill them. They can bring comfort as much as they can inflict misery. They can create beauty as much as they can create ugliness. They can evoke any emotion, from joy to anger, from despair to terror, and from relief to suspense.

Words allow human beings to broadcast themselves—and their wills—onto the external world. They are the intermediaries. In themselves, they are nothing. But in particular contexts—and in particular settings—they are everything.

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