You know those conversations that start off small and then go wildly, irrevocably, mind-meltingly off the rails? Like maybe, “Hey did you see Sausage Party?” And before you realize what’s happened, a casual convo about a movie you were underwhelmed by has spun into a heated debate about PC Culture and the importance of words. Recently, at the end of such an incident, I walked away with a forced smile, my head ringing with the things I wished I’d said, and the my heart aching over the things a loved one said with no malice, but that wounded me deeply all the same.
I’ll spare you all the gritty details. Suffice to say, we argued over slurs. But of all the things that were said back and forth — and notably with a certain level of respect and no name-calling or shouting — the thing he said that really lingered was:
“Words don’t matter.”
It was the crux of his argument. Sure, there were also variants of old standards about “freedom of speech,” “if they can say that word, I can say that word,” “PC culture run amok,” and “people nowadays are too damn sensitive.” But it all came down to his belief that “words don’t matter.” The conversation played back in my head over and over that night. And that phrase became a mocking mantra that kept me up for hours: Words don’t matter. Words don’t matter. Words don’t matter. The “don’t” beating like a drum, that had my heart thumping with rage until my brain screeched in response, with an internal echo so mighty it made me dizzy.
First off, telling a writer “words don’t matter” is a slap in the fucking face.
We dedicate our lives to finding the perfect words. And the irony is he wasn’t trying to insult me. He thinks words don’t matter, so why would I be bothered by such a proclamation, right? When he says, “words don’t matter,” he means, “I’m not offended by these words, so why should you be?” He hasn’t bothered to consider how words shape us and our every day. And what sucks is, he’s not alone.
Look at Trump Nation. Every other day the Republican nominee says something that is cringe-inducingly awful to many. If his supporters get riled, he backpedals with vague pledges of regret, or just flip flops entirely. Words don’t matter to Trump. He spits them out without a care, like Scrooge McDuck spitting coins in his money pool, where they are lost almost instantly in a pile of more, more, more. Plus, he thinks we — we liberal elite, we biased media, we un-American — take them too seriously. And he’s not alone.
Not everyone rooting for Trump is an overtly racist/homophobic/misogynistic piece of shit. But a lot of them seem to think Black people and gay people and women are too damn sensitive about silly things like words. Like that old schoolyard chant goes, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Except they do, don’t they?
No matter who you are, you’ve had a word hit hard. So hard it felt physical, right? Think back on that moment. That word. Remember the inflection of the person who said it. Recall how their eyes blinked with rage, hate or disappointment. I think back on the words that have hit me, and decades later, I still wince. But words work the other way too.
Think on the sound of your name in your mother’s voice. Remember the first time someone you were crazy over said they loved you. Does it still ignite a warm flush on your cheeks? Still make your heart skip? Still make you well up with the sweetness of it all? Words imprint themselves on us. They build our personalities and experiences like a brilliant and puzzling collage. They build us.
Think about the power of words strung together. Think about the speeches that made your heart pound with hope. The phrases that have come to mean so much more than the sum of their parts: “18 million cracks,” “you have to give people hope,” “I have a dream.” These words matter. They built unity. They grew hope. They changed the world.
In the age of the internet, it’s easier than ever to share every thought and feeling, no matter how tangential or half-formed. And perhaps a side effect of that is that we too often take words and their consequences for granted. We spout out dumb jokes without thinking how they might be viewed outside the context of who we are to our friends and family. We mock celebrities on Twitter while tagging them, because fuck them, right? It’s not like they’re people with feelings. We denounce ideas and people with throwaway remarks, punctuated perhaps with a mocking gif. Of course trolls take it further, using hate speech, insults, and threats in a dark hobby of harassment. But I suspect they know what they’re doing.
Trolls employ hard horrible words to intimidate others into silence, because they know words matter. They know their words make people feel angry, or small, or alone. They get a reaction, whether it be retweeting with criticism, lashing out, or retreating from Twitter. Trolls fear words changing the world in a way that scares them, and so they fight back with ugly words that inspire fear, stir outrage, and strive for silence.
Words fucking matter.
They build nations. They destroy relationships. They determine our tomorrow with every syllable, and emphasis. And just because someone may not understand the power their words carry, that doesn’t excuse their responsibility from those consequences.
Kristy Puchko’s favorite word may be “ice cream.”