Krauss: Words Don’t Matter

Appropriate note of caution and the need to consider context and interpretation:

At the bottom of the copyright page of the latest editions of Roald Dahl’s books, a new notice now appears. “Words matter … The wonderful words of Roald Dahl can transport you to different worlds and introduce you to the most marvellous characters.”

On the surface, it seems whimsical and innocuous. However, it signals a recent effort carried out by his publisher, Puffin, to rewrite his classic texts to make them less “offensive.” Words like “fat” and “ugly” have been culled, whole phrases rewritten, and, of course, gender-neutral terms have been added in places.

While highly reported on in the media, this rewriting of classic literature is just the most recent manifestation of a central facet of the new dangerous trend to label language as a form of violence, under the guise of the very mantra that introduced the new bastardization of Dahl’s work: Words Matter.

As a writer, one might think I would be more sympathetic to this claim, but I am not. I recognize and celebrate the potential power of words, but I understand that whether this potential is manifested depends completely on the recipient. The pen may be more powerful than the sword, but only if the words reach a receptive audience. There is a fundamental difference between verbal assault and physical assault. The impact of the former, as potentially harmful as it may seem, lies purely in the mind of the listener. Not so for physical violence.

Saying “Words Matter” or “Words have Power” is like repeating the old mantra “Knowledge is Power.” But that doesn’t make any of them true. Knowledge alone confers no power, however much we might wish it were so. Ask most environmental scientists, or reflect on the fate of the ancient Librarians of Alexandria. It is what you do with the knowledge that matters. The same is true for words.

T.S. Eliot also wrote, in his masterful poem Four Quartets 1, “Words, after speech, reach Into the silence.” Words disappear after they are spoken. The only place they may persist is in the mind of the listener. What we do with the words we hear is uniquely determined by a combination of culture, experience, education, and conscious or subconscious reflection. At a very basic level, each of us has the power, at least in principle, to parse and interpret what we hear, and, if necessary, to do so in ways that positively benefit our psyches and our lives, or, alternatively, in ways that may cause emotional pain and trauma.

While Eliot may have also bemoaned the slipperiness of language in the lines from Four Quartets quoted above, part of the power of words at the same time lies in their ability to be imprecise, vague, and even disingenuous. Language must be interpreted, and that opens up a host of opportunities. It is also why we must all interpret what we hear or read.

Noam Chomsky once said to me, when we were discussing religious beliefs, “I don’t care what people believe. It is what they do that matters.” Beliefs can influence actions, of course, and so can words. Words have the power to incite violence, but this depends on the receptiveness in the mind of the listener. The call to jihad may motivate a suicide bomber, but for those whose minds have not been prepared for years through exposure to religious dogma and indoctrination, it falls on deaf ears. Similarly, most of us could see through the lying hyperbole of Donald Trump on January 6th, 2021, but those who then gathered outside the US Capitol Building were already true believers and were primed to act.

Without context and interpretation, and unless one chooses to internalize them, words are impotent, and that gives us power over them, not vice versa. We may be influenced by what we read or hear, but we own our responses, including our actions, which, after all, speak louder than words.

This notion is anathema in the modern world, however, because it implies that if you feel traumatized or offended by what you hear or read, it is primarily your problem to deal with. The trauma may be very real, but the underlying psychological issues and healing processes are ones that you, not others, need to take primary ownership of. You have not been victimized; you have been traumatized. There is a difference.

It is relatively well known that I am an atheist, but I also grew up in a Jewish household. For much of my professional life, neither of these factors made much of a difference. However, that has been changing, due in part to the fact that antisemitism has been on the rise. I am beginning to see pejorative comments online about my being a “Jew.” On a societal level, this is certainly a worrisome trend, but on a personal level, it means absolutely nothing to me. My reaction is to immediately discount the rest of what the speaker has to say, while at the same time feeling a bit sorry for their stupidity and ignorance.

This response is probably cultural. While I was young, whenever I saw signs of antisemitic exclusion, like some club not accepting Jews, it seemed that Jews had banded together to build a nicer club down the road. The response to antisemitism was not a sense of victimization, but rather an incentive to be better and do better. Such a material response may be a luxury of circumstances that is not available to all, but the psychic response is always available. Die Gedanken Sind Frie (“Thoughts are free”), after all.

It is also important to note that words are not static. Their meanings evolve over time as language and culture evolve. Rewriting the words of speakers or writers of the 17th century, or the 1950s, so that they adhere to the cultural sensitivities of the present time robs us not only of great literature but also of historical perspective. Repeating the mantra “Words Matter” as a rationale for censoring words or silencing others, is often simply code for “Coddle Me.” To edit Roald Dahl or Ian Fleming, so that young adults are never exposed to words or situations that might not be considered appropriate for popular discourse today is to stunt their intellectual and emotional growth.

Censoring and other strictures on language are not the solutions. Rational discussion and even ridicule are. Words themselves can be the greatest tools to alter the impacts of other words. After all, words aren’t, or shouldn’t be, treated as if they are sacred. Allowing them to be said out loud often robs them of their power. In 1972, the comedian George Carlin was arrested for disturbing the peace for performing a routine in which he described the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”:  “shit,” “piss,” “fuck,” “cunt,” “cocksucker,” “motherfucker,” and “tits,” expressing amazement that they could not be used regardless of context. He later said:

I don’t know that there was a “Eureka!” moment or anything like that … It’s just impossible to say “this is a blanket rule.” You’ll see some newspapers print “f blank blank k.” Some print “f asterisk asterisk k.” Some put “f blank blank blank.” Some put the word “bleep.” Some put “expletive deleted.” So there’s no real consistent standard. It’s not a science. It’s a notion that they have and it’s superstitious. These words have no power. We give them this power by refusing to be free and easy with them. We give them great power over us. They really, in themselves, have no power. It’s the thrust of the sentence that makes them either good or bad.

The next time someone says “words matter,” ask them why. If they say it is because words can cause them harm or offense, suggest they consider growing up. That, too, may offend, but maybe those words, and a subsequent discussion, can also do some good.

Director Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame, described the purpose of many of their skits:

Use your brain, use these things. That was essential to Python, as far as I was concerned. And causing offense was a part of that. It’s to shock people. To shock them out of their complacency, their timidity, their caution in life. Be bold, fall on your face a couple of times. It doesn’t hurt that badly. You bounce back up. It’s okay.

A recent gripping Quillette piece extolled the courageous writing career of Salman Rushdie and discussed his newest book, Victory City, published six months after he was stabbed on stage in August 2022. The title of the Quillettearticle, “Words Are the Only Victors,” refers in part to the final words of his heroine as she buries her record of her city’s final moments of destruction in a clay pot beneath the earth.

In a world governed by hate and irrationality, it may be true that in the aftermath of violence, words may be the only victors. But in a world where words are treated as if they are both weapons and attackers, and where we shield ourselves from them for fear that they might induce feelings in us that we don’t like, we don’t become the victors—we only further victimize ourselves.

Source: Words Don’t Matter

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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