I once gave a report in high school that turned into a disaster of Hindenburg-ian dimensions. I was rolling along, using words I knew and loved, words I’d read a thousand times or more, unaware that my audience — my friends — were moving from impatience to anger. Why was I using the words I was using — ten dollar, multisyllabic words? Did I think I was better than they were? I was dumbstruck, blindsided by their wrath. I thought everyone knew the words I knew. I didn’t realize that words — pure, beautiful words — the obsession of my life even then, could cause such emotion.
Later in life, I worked for a toy company. Who would’ve thought that something as innocent and delightful as toys could cause so much unreasonable anger? But they did. The letters I got (as editor-in-chief) bore this out: letters complaining about everything and anything. Why did we use the headline “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend” to describe a glittery collection of costume jewels? “How dare you!” the letter ran. “My niece’s best friend is a soccer ball!” It was an object lesson in the power of words.
I find as a writer that it is the words we think about the least — the ones that flow from us as simply as breath, as unconsciously as air — that can wound people the most. Why is that? Is it because they represent the things we take for granted — things that most blatantly show our deepest beliefs in the world?
Many of us who are not persons of color don’t understand the concept of White Privilege. Why? Because it is so ingrained, so normal to us that it ceases to be wondered at or even noticed. Like the words we use without thinking, privilege comes so naturally, we fail to notice that we are part of the problem. That what we take for granted can be hurtful to others.
In one of my favorite Shakespearean plays, Hamlet (who never met a long soliloquy he didn’t like) delivers the quintessential angry teen response to Polonius’ endless windbaggery: “Words, words, words.” The words we do not consider, that we hand out as easily as we might a smile or a nod, can be the most dangerous. The actions we do not consider can be symptomatic of collusion with a system that is not fair or equitable.
Words can be insidious. They can attract or repel. Weighing them like stones before we cast them into the world seems to be a practice worth pursuing. Even if we can’t always predict where they will land — as anyone who’s ever read the “comments” section of any Internet post knows — we can try. Consider what you take for granted, in word and in deed. Are you standing where you want to stand? Are you standing with compassion and mercy?
Or are you throwing rocks?