Just Words


In roughly a week, give or take a few days, my wife and I are expecting a baby boy. We have a name picked out (but it's a secret). We have his room all ready. We've even got a little library for him. In the last few days, I've started googling around and asking friends to remind me of all the lullabies, rhymes, and limmericks I might want to have in my repertoire. 

For the most part, I'm pretty liberal. I mean, fairy tales can be pretty weird. Many of them have pretty morally problematic origins. Some are deeply sexist (mostly in ways that are inessential to the plot), or nativist, or embed some other form of ignorance. Still, I don't think I'm going to ban a story just because there's an opportunity to learn about some small way in which the world and our representations of it used to be (or still are) broken. 

Still, there's one rhyme I will never teach my son: Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me .

Why not? Well, for one thing it's not at all clever. There aren't any fun characters or flourishes, and it doesn't even rhyme. But even apart from the aesthetic criticism: the only thing it claims -- that words will not (or cannot) hurt one like sticks and stones can -- is just plain false.

A few days ago, I wrote about some words that our mayor and other local officials have been fond of using lately. The words "good guys" and "bad guys." In a simple phrase, they are able to identify, label, and completely dismiss a human being; a resident of the city we all share.  And these labels spread. I've talked to friends of mine who say things, "Oh, that guy? Yeah, he's a bad guy." As if that were a sufficient response to any claim he's ever made. As if that were enough to dismiss his concerns, the arguments he's made, the fact the he lives in our community and contributes more than most of us ever have or will to the wellbeing of some of those suffering in our city.

Yesterday, Donald Trump (and many of his followers) took a similar line. Trump's claims, that he had kissed and groped women without their consent -- oh, that was just "locker talk." In one of the many terrifying moments in last night's debate, Trump, breathing heavily into the microphone, responded to Clinton's question about the comments by speaking over her, "Just words," he said. "Those were just words..." 

Much has been written about the link between such words and rape culture. I'm not going to comment on that here (others have done so and much more expertly than I could have). I just want to make one simple point. 

Words, the way we speak, the way we think, the way we behave and interact with one another verbally -- in conversation and debate and performance -- are as damaging a force in our culture as any weapon you could name. Perhaps even more damaging: at least weapons can be physically constrained or restricted. 

I'm not saying we should similarly constrain or restrict speech. In fact, quite the opposite. I vehemently defend Trump's right to say literally whatever the hell he wants.  

But "free speech" doesn't mean that any such use to which speech is put will do no harm. Words have effects. They can literally ruin a person's life. The freedom of speech is a precious freedom, and one that should not be taken lightly. 


Miranda Fricker -- a philosopher at CUNY -- has recently expounded upon a concept that has long been making the rounds in feminist epistemic circles, that of "epistemic injustice." An epistemic injustice is an injustice having to do with belief or knowledge, and there are many. For instance, limiting an individual's access to knowledge-producing mechanisms (like newspapers or publications) based solely on factors like race or gender -- that's an epistemic injustice. 

There are also subtler epistemic injustices. Injustices that are more insidious because less overt. 

Consider the way in which the concept of "hysteria" developed and was used, for many years, to dismiss the serious concerns of women to a predisposition to allow emotions to interfere with the proper function of rationality. Or the way in which, before the concept of sexual harassment was widely recognized as a genuine form of abuse, serial abusers were able to chalk up the distress of their victims to a sort of prudishness or "inability to take a compliment." Let's call these sorts of injustices (with Fricker) hermeneutic injustices.

Hermeneutic injustices can be person-destroying.

When stress and anxiety and extreme pressure are internalized as character flaws, when someone sees herself as a "dumb slut" or a "brainless blond," when someone finds himself unable to find terms in which to express the oppression he feels at the hands of spiritual advisors, when someone finds herself fundamentally incapable of believing that her opinion matters as much as those of the men in the room -- it can be too much.

She can crumble. He can lose it. They can give up hope.


Yesterday, in a brave and utterly original move, I posted on Facebook about my political views.  "How can a Christian support a blatant misogynist like Trump?" I wondered. My friends had many helpful suggestions along these lines...

There were a couple people in particular, though, that took things to an almost fanatical level. Posting long, angry, semi-coherent rants. It was as if Trump had some sort of virus, and that it had become airborne. Or like some inner hate-monster had been awaken inside of them. 

And, look, I get it. Politics riles us all up. We care deeply. We see the truth. And everyone else just. Doesn't. Get it. 

But something I noticed about these Trump-trolls was the particular vehemence with which they would denounce the women posting on the thread. They would call me "stupid" and then give me seven reasons why my view was delusional, but they would refuse to even engage in argumentation with the women. "You clearly lack the knowledge to have a substantive discussion on politics," one wrote (paraphrased for anonymity) of two of the smartest women I know. He had literally no basis for the claim. Or another posted an angry screed in response to my mother's totally legitimate opposition to repealing the Hyde amendment (this is a political position, we are allowed to have those). Something like, "I hope you never have a daughter who is raped and then told that because people with irrational worldviews like yours no one can have abortions and so she'll have to raise it with a rapist and..." 

What the FUCK? 

When I intervened on these threads, the original posters would often walk their claims back. "Oh I just meant..." and "My point was not..." speaking as if they'd been calmly (or maybe not so calmly) debating the whole time. 

They hadn't.  

They'd been harassing.  

Not in some technical or legal sense -- just in a common-sense. They had been trying to cause emotional pain in the women they saw as disagreeing with them; as having the audacity to question their "logic" and "reasoning." They had been using words like Trump uses words. Unjustly. They have been using unjust words. 


Maybe you don't know what it's like to be marginalized in every single public space you ever have to inhabit. I sure as hell don't. But I know what it's like to feel vulnerable. To feel like there's something deeply wrong with me, and that it's going to be discovered at any moment. To feel as if I can be dismissed by the mere identification of my incompetence or ignorance. To feel like every interaction is just another opportunity for me to be exposed as a useless, ignorant fraud. 

And I'm a freaking white dude living in America in 2016.


I'm not going to tell you what you can and can't say. In fact, I'm going to argue with anyone who thinks they can. I'm going to fight tooth and nail for your right to post whatever the hell comes into your brain at any given second on the internet for the whole world to see. 

But I just have one request. 

Please remember that not all words are just words. 

Please try to respect that.