We teach children the adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” to equip them against hateful and harmful things that people say. The saying means to remind people – the adults passing it on and the children learning it – that what people say about us does not necessarily have anything to do with who we actually are. Unfortunately, the saying ultimately proves to be only partially true. Words are powerful: they can hurt or help, harm or heal.
In fact, contemporary “speech-act theory” calls attention to the many ways in which words/speech fulfill “performative” functions. Without going into the intricacies of it, the theory recognizes that speech does things. It creates. Children grow up in speech-rich environments and the tenor and tone of these environments play major roles in creating the world these children grow to inhabit. A hatred-shaped environment creates a world in which children learn and exercise hatred; if they are the targets of the hatred, they will learn fear. If the discourse that surrounds them categorizes and valorizes people according to accidents of birth such as gender or race, or according to extrinsic properties such as social status or wealth, then children will mature into adults who regard the value Christianity places on every life and the democratic ideal of the equality of all as platitudes, statements designed to placate and pacify those “lower” on the hierarchy. In these ways, words can break bones just as surely as sticks and stones do. Words can shape people into hateful, fearful, arrogant harm-doers.
God created the good world via the word. Human words can create pseudo-worlds of perception and deception, worlds that are not good but harmful. People create such worlds when they spread unfounded rumors about others, whey they attack another’s personhood by name-calling, and when they define an entire person by a single characteristic (poor, black, redneck). This power of words, of course, is why, even in a society that prizes freedom of speech, we still have laws against libel, slander, and incitement – all uses of words that can destroy careers, reputations, families, and even lives. Every lynching in the awful days of the post-reconstruction, pre-civil rights South began with words.
“For as one thinks in one’s heart, so is one…” (Prov 23:7).
The insights offered by speech-act theory, however, do not address another function of language: the capacity for revelation fundamental to the ability to communicate. A speaker formulates an idea that he or she wishes to convey to another. Aside from behaviors such as gestures, the only medium available is words.
In this sense, words reveal the speaker’s internal world. In fact, by virtue of the nature of personhood, one can never fully know the subjective experience of another person; one can only know it imperfectly if the other person chooses to disclose it, to reveal, to communicate. Words reveal the inner world of a speaker – albeit only to a degree.
Whew! Speaking words , the paragraphs about contain a lot of them, and dry, theoretical ones, at that. Words create conditions (good or bad); words reveal their speaker.
It seems to me that the moment (I write on the eve of the third and final presidential debate) calls for reminders of these two functions of words. The locker room is one of the places where words shape pseudo-worlds in which it is permissible for “boys to be boys” (which I perceive as an insult to any and all decent men) and in which women and girls are playthings. The campaign podium is no place for words that I will not print here. People do and say deplorable things, but no one is deplorable. Calls for violence will elicit violence (on both sides: witness the recent firebombing in Orange County, NC). Threats intimidate, as they mean to do. Talk of rebellion leads to rebellion.
I hope not to sound Pollyanna-ish. I do not expect to live in a society that tolerates only that speech which would have passed my mother’s test of decency. I do long, however, for less foul, less rude, less derogatory, less demeaning, more elegant, more polite, more elegant, and more loving public and private discourse. Moreover, I fear that if we continue down the path we are now pursuing, we will pay heavily.
Meanwhile, not because I am eager to judge others, but because one must exercise discernment, I am going to operate on the theory that one’s words reveal one’s heart, and that hurtful words, therefore, reveal hurtful intentions. Most of all, however, I am going to return to a practice of my childhood and pray regularly with the psalmist,
“Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart,
be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.”
Would you consider joining me?