by alex lowe
“words are important and powerful because they tell people certain things. language is the tool of love and the weapon of hatred at the same time.”
on june 21, 2010 – my first day of teaching my first english class during my first summer at student u – jessica, one of my sixth graders, wrote these words on a sticky note. she was right.
the english language is made up of just 26 letters that can make 44 individual sounds, or phonemes. spanish? 27 letters and 24 phonemes. think about that – it is truly incredible. we take these minimal resources – sporadic squiggles on a piece of paper and a strikingly small number of isolated sounds – and we turn them into words. we manipulate a maximum of 44 sounds and move them around like puzzle pieces to form infinite thoughts, infinite opinions, infinite identities, infinite questions, and infinite answers.
words are amazing.
and especially right now, i believe that words matter.
whether typed in 140 characters on twitter or being shouted from the mouths of marching people, whether written eloquently on official court documents or casually spoken amongst friends in lunchtime conversations, there is no doubt that words – now more than ever – are not just important, but powerful. we are surrounded and inundated by words carrying piercing power – as a tool of love, yes, but increasingly as a weapon of hatred.
the question, then, is not if words have power – they do. the question for us is, what will we do with this power?
because perhaps the most important thing to know about words – after we know that they are powerful – is that we are each owners of our words, and though some may try to silence them, our words cannot be taken from us. my words are my words and you cannot take them from me, and your words are your words and i cannot take them from you. in times where we may feel like we do not have control over much, we must cling to the fact that words are power, and we all have words.
so – what does it look like to use the power of our words responsibly? for that, i do not have an answer for you – we are different people with different brains in different situations. and while i cannot give you answers, i can give you two questions to consider:
1. what would happen if we went through our days knowing that every word we think or utter or write or tweet or share holds power? the power to build up, the power to tear down; the power to amplify, the power to silence; the power to condone, the power to challenge; the power to build empathy, the power to bend the arc of the moral universe one step closer to justice?
2. what if we each looked at our own little patch of the world and considered what it means to use words as a tool of love there? what does that look like for you? is it writing your words? is it sharing them for the first time? is it speaking them in the face of fear or disagreement? is it silencing your own words so that someone else’s may be heard? what does it mean to use words to amplify messages of love and negate messages of hate in the small moments and minutes of your life?
because the truth is that your words have power and they matter. and while senate rules or systemic racism or people you encounter may temporarily silence them, they are yours, they cannot be taken from you, and they deserve to be heard. i am in a position of privilege to get to share mine here, freely, in a public space, in all lowercase letters (just the way i like it) – but your words are just as important as mine. if you need someone to hear them, student u is here. my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. i have a keyboard of 26 letters and 44 sounds, and i’ll email you back.