I was annoyed that some kind of message had popped up on my iPhone screen while I was attempting to play my turn in a Words with Friends game. My annoyance turned to horror when I read the inconvenient little missive, warning me that the sexting app I was about to download contained graphic images.
Where the hell had this come from?
Sitting a few steps away from me, my wife could see that I was perturbed. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “You tell me!” I blurted out in response.
As anyone who knows me will tell you, I am a techno-idiot. As my wife likes to remind me, I break computers. If there is a way to mess up an electronic device, I will find it. Those who create foolproof hardware and software never bargained for a fool the likes of me.
In this case, not only was I alarmed by the nature of the warning, but the message box covered most of the little screen and I had no idea how to make it go away without clicking “Download.” This I most assuredly was not about to do. I expressed my opinion that this was horrible stuff and that I had no idea how all manner of trash seems to download itself spontaneously onto my phone by some sort of electronic voodoo.
I brought the phone over to my wife, who pressed some buttons, swiped her finger, gave the phone the evil eye, and did a bippity-bop and an abracadabra, quickly returning the phone to its normal state and me to my Words with Friends game.
But she was clearly annoyed with my reaction. “It’s not horrible, it’s just words!” she insisted. Her remark returned me to a dilemma I’ve faced for years.
I believe that words are powerful. I have always loved the aphorism that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” I don’t think that I could be a writer, even of a lowly blog, if I believed otherwise.
I find that words can inspire, disgust, convince, perplex, soothe, and yes, even change the world. However, I have also discovered that not everyone agrees. When I was a kid, my father liked to recite “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me.” I, of course, knew otherwise, and not just because of some of the choice bits of vocabulary leveled at me by my schoolmates. I witnessed the visceral reaction of my mother when my parents were arguing and my father used certain Yiddish invective against her. And, as a bookworm from an early age, I knew how those black letters on the white page could toss me about on an emotional roller coaster.
Three or four jobs ago, I found myself engaged in a running argument on this topic with one of my coworkers. The usual context of our debate was the appropriateness of profanity. My position was that the use of certain words raise powerful reactions in the reader that are likely to derail the author’s intended message. “Oh, they’re just words,” she’d roll her eyes and tell me, implying that I was some kind of prude or maybe just a big baby.
Just words??!! Does that mean that the Bible is just words? Does that mean that the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are just words? I’m sorry, but when I recite the ninety-first Psalm or the Pledge of Allegiance, these are not just words to me. They mean something. Granted, what they mean to me may be very different from what they mean to you. But to utterly dismiss our means of expression, our innermost thoughts and our fondest desires as mere words is a nihilistic proposition that exceeds the bounds of even our most existential of philosophers.
Another pithy saying I learned as a child was “actions speak louder than words.” I quickly came to understand that this meant that politicians, and almost everyone else as well, were liars and big talkers who would say one thing and do another. Once again, words were discounted as worthless and devoid of meaning.
And then there was that other glib saying, “silence is golden.” Apparently, words were so misleading and evil that they were not even worth uttering. Even the solitude and separation imposed by silence was preferable.
As I grew up, I became amazed by the extent to which people feared words. Eventually, I came to see that one way of dealing with fear was dismissal. If you convinced yourself that words were nothing but a load of trash, then you could rob them of their power.
In junior high, when I first studied the Bill of Rights in detail, I learned that freedom of speech is not unlimited. Because words do indeed carry the power to injure, they have to be reined in to some extent. The example with which we were provided is that it is unlawful to precipitate a deadly panic by shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater.
This was something of an “aha” moment for me. So words do have meaning. Actions may speak louder than words, but boy howdy, words sure can lead to action. Action like a mad stampede out of the theater in which scores of people are crushed to death. Just as surely, effective words can inspire people to perform good works and to engage in amazing acts of kindness and beauty. Or they can rouse people to fits of anger, to die for a cause, or to commit crazed acts like the murder most of the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo.
It didn’t take me long to come to the conclusion that words themselves could be beautiful or ugly. This is not because of the shapes of the letters of which they are composed on paper or the contortions of the mouth in which one must engage in order to pronounce them. True, the very sound of a word may be mellifluous or grating. But the inherent beauty of words lies in what they represent. They are symbols that stand for real things, ideas, emotions. Say “daisy” and I will likely picture the wildflowers that popped up unbidden on the lawn of my childhood home or the yellow lovelies that now sit in a vase on our kitchen table, courtesy of our generous niece. Say “war” and I will conjure up images of blood and guts and deafening explosions and tanks and planes and smoke and fire and mortally wounded soldiers writhing in pain.
So no, it’s not “just words” when someone uses profanity and I feel an involuntary jerk in my gut. And it’s not “just words” when a message pops up on my screen warning me that I am about to download porno. Horror and disgust are valid reactions to words because words do have meaning, do have import, do have power.
What I have learned is that there are some who I will never be able to convince. To them, all of my arguments on the subject are undoubtedly “just words.”