“They’re just words.”
Donald Trump said that, over and over again, in the second presidential debate. In one context, he meant, “Hillary has said a lot of things over the years, but our country is still a mess.” In another context, he meant, “I’ve said some laddish things. That doesn’t mean I did anything.”
It’s interesting that Trump used exactly the same words to signify both blame and innocence. It seems weird, but it makes sense: In both cases, words are not actions.
But we who work with words—who spend hours every day puzzling, agonizing, over getting the words right—understand that sometimes words are more powerful than actions. We know the force of words used well—and the impotence of words used poorly.
Words inspire us or goad us into action (or reaction). They inform us and persuade us of the righteousness or evil—or insignificance—of a cause.
And it is a lie that words can never hurt you. Broken bones heal. Black eyes fade. Words can lodge in the most vulnerable corner of your psyche where they can fester and devastate you over time.
Words can do so much worse. Words can convince nations to elect dictators. Words can move people to commit genocide. Words can convince you that the things happening before your eyes are not happening. Words start wars.
Of course, the opposite is true, too. Words can inspire greatness. Words lift us up and bring us together. Words help us understand and admire our fellow creatures. Words point us and test us and push us to do better, to be better.
We like to believe words don’t matter. We want—perhaps need—to excuse our politicians and celebrities for saying reprehensible things. Implied racism is not real racism. Locker-room talk is just talk. Lies are just words and words are just lies. If we believe they don’t really mean it, then no big deal, right?
Wrong. Words may not be actions, but they matter as much.
They’re nothing. They’re marks on a page, vibrations in the air. They’re just words.
But they’re never just words.
Words photo by Skye.marie (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.