For many decades kids grew up with the old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” and applied it to negative things that are actually said rather than including positive things that are never said. This saying removed power from words too. Very often these days I read comments about how stories are just words and they can’t mean anything. Ignore those who tease you because teasing is just words and words can’t hurt you. Forget about never hearing “I love you” and other sweet things because they’re just words and anyone can say them and so they don’t matter. Ignore a book trying to normalize abuse/make eating disorders seem safe/attempt to make unwanted suffering be considered as noble because they’re just words and, once again, words mean nothing.
This is bull. It’s all wrong. All of it. Words have tremendous power, whether said or unsaid. Who in this world has formed an opinion on something, whether it’s abortion, doctor-assisted suicide, or the Westboro Baptist “Church,” with absolutely no words being spoken or written or signed? Whether the delivery method is a mouth or a film or a book or sign language (how is this so different than a different language you don’t understand?), words sway people, and oftentimes the reader/listener doesn’t even realize it.
If you, like most people, find Westboro abhorrent, you probably didn’t sit down and think about what you heard about them. You probably heard they praise their idea of a god for dead soldiers and dead children because it’s their deity’s punishment for American starting to accept gays. You weren’t consciously aware of your opinion being formed by the words you heard and read. It just happened.
Paul Ryan, a fairly unpopular politician for those of you who don’t keep up with American politics, was so swayed by Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead that he required all his staff to read the book. He was so influenced by her writing that many news articles hinted that she may as well be a co-candidate and share his political position. Other politicians could not deny that he was obsessed with the influence of her books, even calling it disturbing. But you know what? The words in her “obviously really bad fiction” obviously really influenced the guy right up to being a contender for vice resident of this country.
Way back in ancient times Plato was concerned about the influence fiction had on people to the point that he considered the writings to be “lies” that need to be banned. He was convinced that the power of fiction could so thoroughly cloud the mind that the only defense is to disallow it altogether. Probably most people today think this is an overreaction, though it does show that over 2,000 years ago the influence of the written word was known.
Whatever your religion, if you have one, you probably consider the texts of other religions to be nothing more than fiction and your own to be the truth. Someone else will think yours is the fiction and theirs the truth. Regardless of what is and isn’t, the words between the covers of the Christian bible, the Muslim Q’oran, and every other have been used to influence extremists, and sometimes not so extremists. We’ve all heard of the Holy Crusades, King John famously riding out onto the battle field to defend Christendom. We’re all painfully aware of Bin Laden and 9/11. To tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of people around the world, the texts influencing these people is fiction.
David Mark Chapman was obsessed with certain books, most notably Catcher in the Rye, and their influence led him to murder John Lennon.
So how can anyone argue that words can’t cause harm, that they can’t influence people to do bad things? No one argues that the bible can influence people to help the poor and sick, or that a biography on Nikola Tesla, just words, can influence young people to go into science, or even that The Babysitters Club books could encourage youngsters to try setting up their own small neighborhood businesses to earn some extra money.
You can’t have it both way. Either words can influence bad as well as good, or words have no effect at all and we can all have no opinions.
Now another type of words that doesn’t get the attention it deserves is the type that are unsaid in any format. We’ve all known a woman who feels ugly because she so rarely hears she’s pretty, or the child who feels unloved because, while the parent(s) may make sure the material needs are met, the simple utterance of “I love you” is coveted and elusive. Perhaps ironically, asking to hear needed but unsaid words can render their receipt meaningless. How genuine can an “I love you” or “You’re beautiful” or “I think your work is fantastic” be only given in response to being asked? Their lack can influence, no, directly result in a loss of self-esteem and self-worth.
Yes, dear readers, even an absence of words can hurt. Some lucky people can believe that hearing nothing negative means to assume the positive. If only we could all be so lucky.
If you’re in the camp believing that words have no power, please enlighten me as to how this can be. Please tell me how you’ve managed to be completely unaffected by words on every way, and how it would impact you to never again receive a compliment. After all, they’re just words.
If you are not in this camp, please stop for a moment and ask yourself when you last gave a compliment that wasn’t requested and you thought should just be implied with a smile or “just known” to begin with. A measly two second to compliment someone, even a stranger in passing whose hair or jacket you admire, can be the boost someone needs.
To all critical of the power books, especially fiction, can have, please take a moment to think about how they are words, and how words have shaped out world since the first beings became capable of communicating.