“But words will never hurt me,” says the childhood aphorism, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Try yelling “oatmeal!” in crowded theater and watch nothing happen but annoyed stares and admonitions to please be quiet. Yell “fire!” and watch chaos erupt.
Words, in fact, can and do hurt; words are nearly magical incantations that immediately stimulate limbic system responses, powerful emotions and physiological effects. Used maliciously they can damage others and oneself. Rush Limbaugh for example, callously called a young woman who testified about insurance payments for contraception a “slut” and found himself at the center of an organized effort to punish his radio program advertisers. Thus it is that vicious words are a double-edged weapon that cuts in two directions.
Words, of course, come easy to people. Within a few years of birth, we adopt a complex and symbolic word-based reality that nominally and metaphysically represents the world in nearly infinite glory. We move through this metaphysical realm with ease and natural comfort as long as others share our particular language. Word magic is dependent upon a collective symbolic framework; plopped down in a foreign land one immediately discovers how easily the magic disappears.
There was a time when all words were considered sacred, and their power was respected. Vowels, for example, were not included in early Hebrew writing to prevent those who had not received an authorized oral transmission from knowing how particular words were pronounced; lacking such knowledge, word magic could not be used improperly. In paleolithic and early neolithic society, speech itself was considered a sacred aspect of the wind element and therefore nothing to trifle with. Anthropologists speculate that early humans combined gestures with various sounds imitating animals and nature.
Today, of course, we toss words around without much regard for their magic. Sure, we continue to recognize words well-spoken or set down, but even this is considered by many an old-fashioned affectation or simply irrelevant. Because people are passionate, words of passion dominate TV and movies – often hateful, sarcastic, cruel, painful or mean. Words once considered obscene, such as George Carlin’s famous seven dirty words, are now in such common everyday use on cable TV that they are steadily losing a particular type of power. Sometimes I wonder what will replace them.
In our individualistic society, freedom of speech has come to mean “anything goes.” Hidden behind platitudes about honesty or having every “right” to say what we want, we often ignore the injuries we inflict on others and ourselves.
Kind and loving words have power and magic, too, lest we forget, and despite Hollywood’s depictions, most people speak kindly to one another. The rarely invoked “golden rule” is true wisdom, a valuable legacy of earlier generations that understood how a good and just society forms and functions. In today’s super-speedy culture we move faster but ironically have less time; “right speech” requires a thoughtfulness and attention that seems too slow for us. Yet, our natural inclination to promote harmony and pacify conflict underlies linguistic forms of politeness and decorum. Right speech is peaceful speech.
Personally, I find myself spending more time being quiet. Even one day of silence reveals volumes. So here’s my modest proposal: say nothing next Tuesday, just listen, and then let me know what it’s like.