I am often told that, as a writer, I should recognize the power of words. As a crafter of poetry and prose, they tell me, surely I must understand the weight that words have, the beauty they create, and the damage they can cause. This conversation is often prompted by the latest outrage over language, in response to the strident position I take against policing speech. But words hurt, people remind me. The pen is mightier than the sword. Words have power. You, of all people, should understand that.
I do understand. But words only have the power we give them. Without us, they’re empty vessels.
If you’ve ever highlighted text and browsed through fonts on your computer, you’ve seen just how easily words can be divorced from their meanings. With every shift to another typeface, the context dissipates, the letters dissociate and the words cease to be words at all. No matter how deeply ingrained its meaning might be, a few clicks are all it takes for a word to devolve into abstract shapes on a screen.
Yes, words have certain qualities. With the “dirty” ones, it’s particularly easy to see. Fuck is dynamic and punchy. Cunt is sharp and percussive. Shit is sticky and stretchy. Words can have a rhythm, an intensity, a sense of movement to them. They can also feel dull, weightless and evanescent. This is what makes language beautiful, and it’s what gives poetry its power. The mistake we make is in thinking that words are those qualities, rather than simply embodying them. The flairs and flourishes that color our vocabulary are contexts—ideas and impressions that we infuse into our words, and which are informed by the world in which we use them. If the context were different, the words would be, too.
Imagine someone berating you in a language you don’t speak. What happens? If you can’t hear them, absolutely nothing; if you do, not much more. You might pick up the hostility in their tone, and perhaps that would be enough for you to feel slighted. It’d be difficult to make the case, however, that you wouldn’t be more hurt, angrier and more affected if you could understand precisely what ideas were being hurled at you; what stereotypes they might be using against you; and what insecurities they might activate. Without that larger context within which to frame them, without your understanding of the intent behind them, your interlocutor’s words are meaningless.
We all agree on this already—some of us just don’t realize it. The confusion comes when we assign intentions to words and then pretend the two are inextricable. This move—mistaking words for sources rather than carriers of meaning—has disastrous effects on our discourse. Take the case of Greg Patton, the professor at the University of Southern California who used the Chinese word nèi ge (the equivalent of um in English) during a lecture on filler words and business communication. Because of that word’s lexical similarity to nigger, Patton was reported and ultimately suspended for using it in class.
This may seem like the perfect example of how intentions don’t matter. After all, Patton was talking specifically about filler words. He explicitly mentioned that nèi ge was Chinese before he said it. The context and his intention were clear to all who were present, and to all who watched the video clip of the lecture that later surfaced online. In the end, none of this made any difference. The word was heard, the damage was done and Patton was punished. Regardless of the intention, the impact was the same.
The implications here are as magical as they are infantilizing. Whether they realize it or not, those behind Patton’s dismissal are arguing that—despite being in a different language, and despite bearing no etymological relation to the English slur—those syllables uttered in that order are a blade through the heart of anyone—especially anyone black—who hears them. The word nigger is so toxic, so inherently vile, that a mere simulacrum of it possesses the power to wound all within earshot.
Are those USC students also offended by black comedians and hip-hop artists who use the actual slur—not some phonetic doppelgänger—with abandon? I suspect not—nor should they be. Of course, the typical response is that those artists are the right color to use the slur and therefore, when they say it, it isn’t a slur at all. I’m sure the students would agree with this. What’s curious is their failure to see that, in so doing, they’ve conceded to the primacy of intention. The argument for black versus white uses of nigger is predicated on the notion that, when they use it, black comedians and rappers are acting within an acceptable context, in which all triggers for offense cease to exist. We all fully understand their intentions, and so, despite the history of pain that word conjures up for many people in other contexts, Dave Chappelle and Kendrick Lamar aren’t to be disturbed by the censors.
Greg Patton’s use of a phonetically similar word, which was treated as though he said the word itself, is perfectly instructive. What the outraged students don’t see is that their alleged pain is the result of an idea they have tied to a word—an intention and a context they refuse to relinquish even in the face of another, more plausible one. By taking offense, they are rejecting the idea that words can have different meanings, that a context might exist in which a white man could say the word nigger without invoking or revealing racism. They believe this so wholeheartedly that a white man saying something that sounds like the slur is just as bad as using the slur itself. Never mind that the meaning was made clear beforehand. Never mind that it was in Chinese. To them, their perception—the impact—is all that matters. But they undercut their own argument with their behavior. They may consciously deny that intention matters, but they are unconsciously agreeing that it does when they get upset with Greg Patton, but not with Dave Chappelle. At some point, we’re all going to have to accept that it’s always about intentions, even when we’re focusing on impact. The impact, after all, comes from perceived intentions. Our communication is so fraught because, out of a combination of kindness and fear, we are allowing others to presume intentions for us, to weaponize them, and to wreak havoc on our discourse in response.
Words don’t hurt, ideas do. We live in a world that is constantly changing, where norms and taboos shapeshift, fluctuate and evolve at a frightening pace. Now that social media serves as the masthead of communication, and words are constantly being cynically and capriciously redefined, it’s particularly easy for different contexts to collide. There will always be more ways for us to misunderstand than to understand each other, and sometimes the source of an offensive idea is not the speaker, but the spoken to. On some level we all know this, but rather than promoting a principle of charity, we scapegoat language for the ideas or the people we wish to change. We continue to behave as though banning words will ban the meanings they carry; as though controlling our tongues will change our minds. And yet, euphemism after euphemism, slur after slur, generation after generation, we find ourselves fighting over the same things, using different terms. We keep killing the messenger and leaving the message unscathed.
My fellow writers, surely you, who have made words your livelihood, must recognize how easily they can be twisted and distorted. You must understand how poetic license lets us cull the lovely from the hideous, the majesty from the mundane, and sadness from joy. You as writers must see how dynamic words can be, especially when under the command of creative minds like your own. If not, then what credit can you take for the beauty of your writing? Are the words doing all of the work? Are poets no more than interior decorators—never weaving the tapestries or building the furniture, but simply arranging them to be palatable?
Words are carriers of meaning, not the sources of it. They’re the tools we use to craft and communicate the ideas we invent. Words hurt when we make them hurt—when the intentions we have, or the ones we infer, are hurtful ones. The pen is mightier than the sword because ideas are why swords are swung; because ideas are more powerful than scribbles on a page or the movements of a tongue. Words can’t create ideas and their absence can’t destroy them—only we can do that. Policing language never works because if ideas persist, other words will be used to communicate them. It is those ideas that hold all the power, for better or for worse. As a writer, I understand that very well.