Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Power of Words

As a writer, I understand the power of words.  They allow me to communicate with the rest of the world, to share my experiences.  They are what binds me to all of you.  Without them, this wouldn't exist.

Words, by definition, have meaning.  If they didn't, nothing anyone says could ever be understood by others.  We'd exist in a world of mumbling, lost souls, never understanding what anyone else needed us to.  We'd find other ways to communicate over time, of that I am sure, but without words and understood meanings it would take a very long time for commonality to surface.

Words make communication easier because when I say the word "there", you know what it means.  When I say the word "dog", you understand what I am talking about.

Many words are just words.  They have definitions.  They are used to describe things or places or actions.  Most words are just that: words.

Some words are more, though.

Some words carry meanings beyond what their basic definitions are, whether through slang usage or their role in history.

For instance, though a bitch is technically a female dog, I can promise you that isn't what most people intend for you to think of when they use that word.

When words like that are used, and you can probably imagine the ones I am talking about, they are used for the purpose of eliciting an emotional reaction.

People don't throw words like that around just to use them.  They use them for a reason.

The one I am thinking about today is this one: retarded.

Have I used the word?  Yes.

Do I use it now? No.

I choose not to now because as I became more aware of the world around me, I realized the power of words.  Words like that one are hurtful.

When people joke using a word like that, they think they are being funny, but the truth is that they mean it as an insult.  They mean to degrade the person they are using it in reference to, call their intelligence into question, and choose to do so by categorizing them as retarded.

I'm sure that those who use it this way don't intend for it to be an actual insult directed at people with legitimate challenges - the categories of people who the word originated to describe. Some of them may show a complete lack of empathy and display cruelness by saying it directly to those people, sure.  I'd make the argument that most of the time someone calls someone else retarded, they aren't literally making that accusation - just using a word to be funny.

Why is it funny though?

As an adult, I've come to know many families with children who have Down's Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, or profound delays.  I know families with non-verbal children, with children with severe birth defects. I know families with several children with special needs. I know people who will be taking care of these children for the rest of their lives, and then worrying about what will happen to their kids when they are gone.

They face incredible challenges in this life, far more than most people could ever comprehend.  As if the reality of their situations isn't enough, they have to contend with a world that marginalizes their children, that doesn't understand them, that doesn't see any reason to accommodate them.

Then they are out somewhere, and they see a group of people talking.  Maybe they are strangers, maybe they are not.  That word gets thrown around.  It is a joke to someone else.

Sure, that someone else doesn't understand.  They don't live it.  They aren't forced to deal with it every single day.  It doesn't matter to them.

Do some people who struggle eventually overcome the labels and the crude humor and the poking fun at them?  Sure.  Some people refuse to let other people define them as they get older and grow a thicker skin.

Why should they have to?

What about all the children who aren't old enough, mature enough, strong enough yet to overcome it?

Why can't people just respect each other?

Why do we have to jokingly insult each other using a word that actually hurts other people?

I've heard arguments from people who use it about why it's just fine.  That is isn't intended to hurt other people.  That it's just a word and they don't mean it like that.  That they'd never say it to someone who actually was retarded. I've had some say that it's political correctness gone too far.  That it's censorship.  That it violates their rights.

It's not about that at all.

It's about awareness of the simple truth that some words carry meaning beyond whatever your intention may be, and that those words can and do hurt other people.  

It's about taking responsibility for your own words and the impact they have on other people.

It's about accepting that all people have value and worth equal to yours, and that you have no right to minimize a population in the name of a joke.

It's about not finding justifications or excuses to keep doing what you are used to.

It's about doing better.

Society evolves.  We all should.

Spread the word to end the word.


  1. Society does evolve. It takes some people longer. Some never make it.

    I am often in the wrong about my word choice. I need to get better about it when I can. This post reminded me of that.

  2. My wife and kids lecture me often about being more careful with my own words especially since I'm a writer and word nerd/snob. Sometimes it's what you don't say to someone can mean a lot or make a difference.


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