Sticks and stones: Don’t underestimate the power of words

By Channing Kaiser / Columnist

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“Don’t tell me white girls struggle in society.”

“Sitting next to black people on the bus makes me nervous.”

“I don’t understand why people dislike Justin Bieber.”

We’ve all heard statements like this before — phrases that make our eyebrows shoot up and our faces grimace. Sometimes, people toss out these off-handed comments in conversation with no explanation for the questionable statement. They are usually space-fillers, a casual comment made to a friend in the Cathedral when the silence is a little too heavy.

But words, both verbal and written, have social consequences. Yet, we often refuse to take responsibility for what we say, as if our words don’t belong to us.

I realized this the other day when I attempted to recruit my friend to write for The Pitt News. I’ve been doing this a lot lately — firstly, because my friends are generally good writers with interesting insights and secondly, because more writers on staff means fewer deadlines for me. 

But after several days of consideration, my friend declined my offer, saying, “I just don’t want to be responsible for what I say.”

I understand where she is coming from. Having your words in print and spread among the masses makes them less retractable. There’s no backspace key, no “whoops, wrong person” text message that can save a misguided article. A lot more people are aware when you stumble, compared to a private conversation with a friend.

Printed word has its perks, though. Writing gives you the opportunity to step back, re-evaluate and edit your ideas. Unlike speaking off-the-cuff, writing tends to be very precise.

Although spoken word provides less opportunity for revision, it doesn’t excuse insensitive and poorly thought-out verbal comments. We should be held accountable for what we say at all times and across all media.

It is a misconception that the sound waves of spoken words are lost moments after conception. To the air, sure, but people around you will remember what you’ve said long after the conversation has ended, even if you don’t.

I still remember being a freshman in high school and having an upperclassman compliment me on my outfit before volleyball practice. But I also remember middle school boys butchering the pronunciation of my first name on purpose, trying to be funny.  

Sometimes we say things because we think they aren’t permanent. Would people really catcall if everything they yelled was written down and filed under their name? Would we really crack those stereotyping jokes if they were printed on paper and passed out on the Union lawn? Probably not.

Of course, there are slip-ups. I’ve had my fair share of poorly articulated ideas and classless jokes. But when I say something that my friends ideologically disagree with or find offensive, they hold me to it, forcing me to either find a new way of expressing myself or backtrack completely. They don’t let my missteps slide, which I’m thankful for because it makes me a better educated and more articulate person, as it challenges my convictions.

The old saying isn’t “do as I do, not as I say,” and how else are we to judge someone if not by his or her word? Our peers should hold us accountable for every homophobic snub and every promise we don’t keep. Words mean something, whether they are written or verbalized, and minimizing their meaning situates us in a world of half-truths — one in which we never know whether what people say is genuine or not.

When the president says he doesn’t have a plan for a foreign threat, his words carry weight. Whether true or not, what the president says directly affects the morale of the country. If his words aren’t confident, how can the public be? 

So, if you say “I hate the color blue,” I get it — blue is not your thing. So why should saying, “Girls who dress like sluts deserve to be treated like them,” be any less telling? Qualify it, if you want, but don’t say something if you’re not willing to accept the consequences.

Continuing to devalue words won’t lead us anywhere positive. It leads to hurt feelings, misunderstandings and less credibility. So, if you disagree with something you hear, tell that person — it’s the only way to a more tolerant world.

Write to Channing at clk87@pitt.edu

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