Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. This was a lie our parents told us when we were children designed to protect us, but a lie nonetheless.
Words do matter and words can do extraordinary impact and have the capacity to wound deeply.
Epithets can be painful. African-Americans heard the word N***** spewed from the mouths of fraternity racists this past week at the University of Ok, Jewish youth have heard vile anti-Semitic words hurled their way. Gay and Lesbians struggle with terms that are offensive and hurtful.
It seems strange that these things are happening on college campuses. Even if the campuses were only reflecting values of the greater society that would be troubling enough, but these are college campuses, ostensibly places where our young go to learn and be exposed to the best we have to offer them to help shape them and expose them to the world of ideas that they can explore. It is a time of idealism unfettered by the harsh realities of daily life filled with obligations that shift focus away from lofty thoughts. But then we have words such as these spoken at the University of Oklahoma.
Words matter. I have heard some young people claim otherwise. For example, nasty tweets are only venting and meaningless. But words do matter. We do not know what mental process might be underling or ameliorating the words. But we hear them and are affected by those words because of our understanding of them.
Jewishly, we believe words carry supreme importance. The Ten Commandments are actually called the 10 Utterances. Our Bible tells us that God spoke the world into being. Words matter a lot. Because they carry so much weight, so much power, words and the meanings they carry, cannot be used cavalierly.
Free speech comes with responsibility. When we say things, the words reflect who we are and what we think; for that is the face we show to the world. Offensive words, words laden with hatred, ridicule or judgment can profoundly affect others. Verbal bullying for example has created pain so deep that some have actually committed suicide.
I am at a loss when someone defends offensive speech as something that is “merely words”
To carry that logic forward would indicate that we completely dismiss everything the speaker has to say as only empty meaningless words. And with that comes the complete dismissal of that person whose words and thoughts are meaningless. However, when we attempt to follow this logic, we are met with push back, because words matter. They reflect on us and they are the basis for other’s perception of us. The words we choose express the beliefs we hold. They are the basis for how we interact with others and often go to the heart of our own personal issues and insecurities. We cannot afford, any of us, to refuse the weight of our words. Free speech is welcome; just understand that we are listening.