“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” We’ve all heard this saying before, and we’ve all told ourselves this when hurtful words were thrown our way. I think it’s safe to say, though, that this saying is complete and utter nonsense. This saying is cliché, and, as I just stated, completely untrue. Yet we continue to feed this saying to children as if it will shield them from the ugly truth. Simply put, words can and do hurt, and oftentimes there is no way to stop the blows or shield yourself from feeling their effects. Words scare me because of the power they hold, and this has led me to be too cautious in using them-both in written and verbal form. Language can be so ableist, racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, transphobic, etc. and often times this is so inherent in our language that we don’t even realize when we are being offensive. Take the casually ableist saying “to turn a blind eye” for example, or the culturally insensitive “that person just gyped me on my change.” Most often people don’t even realize they are being offensive, because people say these things all the time and the historical and cultural significance is simply not known. Words are sneaky and sometimes carry with them unknown cultural/historical baggage. I do my best to use my words with intention and with the knowledge that every word I use has a past, present, and future life that I may not fully understand at the time and have little to no control over.
The downside, though, is that this has often held me back from having conversations that needed to be had. I don’t want to say something problematic or offensive, and I don’t want to unintentionally hurt anyone with my words. This self-censorship has stopped me from participating in class discussions, having hard conversations with friends, and even from writing this very blog. In fact, the last version of this blog post bears little resemblance to this one. In the scrapped post, I could read and feel my resistance to making any sort of claim for fear of being wrong or offensive, and, instead of it being a piece of critical and thought-provoking reflections, it read more like weak and watered-down observations. While I understand the repercussions of this censorship, I can’t seem to stop myself. So, why am I so timid in using language? Because language has power: it can give life as well as take it away. Language gives us intelligibility, personhood, and meaning, and therefore, it can take it away. In order to conquer a fear of language, though, it is important to understand how it works, what it does, and of what it is capable.
When a person says they are a man or a woman, for example, there are a whole set of norms that are called upon that begin to construct what that person might look like, act like, feel like, sound like, etc. In this sense, language is performative. Words, and in a broader sense, language, helps transform a subject into an intelligible being through a regulation and re-enactments of norms. Language can also confer humanness. Judith Butler, in dialogue with Michel Foucault’s work, writes:
This then returns us to the question not only of how discourse might be said to produce a subject (something everywhere assumed in cultural studies but rarely investigated in its own right), but, more precisely, what in discourse effects that production. When Foucault claims that discipline “produces” individuals, he means not only that disciplinary discourse manages and makes use of them but that it also actively constitutes them. (Butler, 50)
Language has power, and I mean this in the Foucauldian sense. It “manages”, “makes use of” and “actively constitutes” us. It forms us, builds us, and molds us into shapes that are recognizable. This power exerts a force, is all around us, and there is no escaping the power that language exercises through us. We need language. After all, we understand others and ourselves through language; language is what makes us into intelligible subjects. The subject is not passive, however. Susan Bordo, writing on Foucault’s conception of power, writes, “…prevailing forms of selfhood and subjectivity are maintained not through physical restraint and coercion, but through individual self-surveillance and self-correction to norms” (253). It is here, then, in the production and maintenance of subjects, that the dark forces of language can be realized. While language can, and does, confer humanness, it can also take it away. In fact, one word can have the ability to do both. For example, on a visit to my sister’s college one weekend, she brought me to an off-campus house where students were throwing a party. Upon entering, a pack of about seven men began chanting “lesbian” at me. Typically, “lesbian” is a source of pride, as I identify with the word. It is used to make me intelligible to others and myself through the meanings that have attached itself to the word. However, these men were not using it in this sense, and instead they were using it to deny me full humanness. They were intending to degrade me, break me down, bring harm to me, and render me less than human. Words are never singular in their meaning, and nor are they singular in their affects or effects. Just as there is not one single way a word can be used, there are multiple ways that words can be heard and felt; words can be used, received, picked up, transferred, and redirected in multiple ways and directions, and they are therefore in a constant state of transformation. Language has generative power.
Harm and Transformation
Language is power, and can be felt right to the bone. Name-calling is a perfect example of this. People deemed “others,” which within the context of the U.S. often means anyone who is not a cisgender white man, are no strangers to the harmful side of language. There is no need to repeat any of these names here, because we have all heard them hundreds of times before (whether we said them or they were aimed at us) but it is often clear that these derogatory words and slurs are intended to dehumanize and bring harm to the individuals they are aimed at. Verbal bullying is a very real and serious threat. It can lead to depression, violence, and suicide. It should be treated with the same seriousness and urgency as any other kind of bullying. The thing is, people know that words can hurt, and they know words may provoke someone. In Molly Worthen’s article, “Stop Saying ‘I Feel Like’”, she discusses how the phrase ‘I feel like’ is on the rise, especially among millennials. The phrase has replaced phrases like ‘I think’ or ‘I believe’ in order to achieve a safer affect. Worthen writes, “This linguistic hedging is particularly common at universities, where calls for trigger warnings and safe spaces may have eroded students’ inclination to assert or argue. It is safer to merely ‘feel.’” This phrase is used as a way to shield the user from any possible arguments or disagreements by asserting that their opinion is simply a feeling. It is a way to avoid tough conversations and debates; it is an escape route. Escape routes like this should not be taken, however, because escape routes like this can have other effects, “This is what is most disturbing about ‘I feel like’: The phrase cripples our range of expression and flattens the complex role that emotions do play in our reasoning” (Sidenote: how many noticed her usage of the ableist term ‘cripple’ here? As I said before, language and words are sneaky, and often times we don’t recognize the baggage they carry). There is no sure way to put an end to bullying, and writing our thoughts off as feelings not only flattens emotion but also shields us from having to deal with the full force of our words. So, what is there left to do? One need only look to queer and feminist practices to find an alternative.
Thanks to feminist and queer practices, there are useful ways to combat negative usages of language. One of the most useful ways, I believe, is through reclamation. The word “queer” was (and in some cases still is) used as a derogatory word for an LGBT person, most usually a gay man. This is exactly why it was chosen for reclamation, as it can be picked up as a source of both pride and resistance. Talking about the reclamation of the word queer, Heather Love writes, “When queer was adopted in the late 1980s it was chosen because it evoked a long history of insult and abuse– you could hear the hurt in it” (Love, 2). While this word can still be used hurtfully, it has significantly lost power for those who identify as queer. Another example, particularly in feminist circles, is the reclamation of the word “bitch.” Jo Freeman’s feminist classic, “The BITCH Manifesto”, in which she reclaims the word, goes all the way back to 1969. “Bitch” has also been more contemporarily reclaimed by a popular feminist magazine that named itself after this word, stating:
When it’s being used as an insult, “bitch” is an epithet hurled at women who speak their minds, who have opinions and don’t shy away from expressing them, and who don’t sit by and smile uncomfortably if they’re bothered or offended. If being an outspoken woman means being a bitch, we’ll take that as a compliment… But we stand firm in our belief that if we choose to reappropriate the word, it loses its power to hurt us. And if we can get people thinking about what they’re saying when they use the word, that’s even better. (bitchmedia.org)
Bitch Media reflects the idea that by reclaiming, or reappropriating a word, the word begins to lose its power, while simultaneously making people think about why and how they are using it. This is an important practice to keep in mind, but doesn’t directly help in fighting a fear of language. However, what will help is understanding that language has a life of its own. It is important to understand how language works, how it creates the world around us, the bodies we live in, and the realities we experience. It is important to understand the history of language, its present formations, and it is important to have an awareness that it will in fact, over time, transform into something different. Most importantly, it is important to recognize how implicated you are in language. There is no escape; language is entirely necessary for life. Language is necessary to life, and life is one giant risk, shouldn’t we be taking risks with our language? Everyone fumbles, everyone insults, everyone offends, and it is completely and entirely unavoidable. No matter how hard we try, we will stumble with our words. So why not be bold? Molly Worthen wrote, “But when new verbal vices become old habits, their power to shape our thought does not diminish. We should not ‘feel like.’ We should argue rationally, feel deeply and take full responsibility for our interaction with the world.” If we want a transformation of our language, full of reclamations of all those ugly words we hate to hear, we must start using language boldly and with confidence. As Worthen notes, however, we must take full responsibility for the language we choose to use and the power it holds to do real harm. I’m not calling for using language with reckless abandon, nor am I asking everyone to start incorporating derogatory language into their everyday vocabulary. That, certainly, might do more harm than good. What I am calling for is an intentionality of our words, backed up by a historical understanding of their meaning and an understanding of the life of language, used in bold and fearless ways. This is not only possible, it is necessary.
-Hannah Webster WS ’16
“About Us.” Bitch Media. Bitch Media, n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Love, Heather. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2007. Print.
Susan Bordo. “Feminism, Foucault and the Politics of the Body.” Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader. Ed. Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick. New York: Routledge, 1999. 246-57. Print.
Worthen, Molly. “Stop Saying ‘I Feel Like’.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 30 Apr. 2016. Web. 8 May 2016.