Most of us have heard the adage “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This seems to promote a view that, if ignored, words are not at all powerful and couldn’t do harm. But is this really true in today’s world?
The reality is words are difficult to ignore and can be a force for both good and ill. Words can motivate, inspire, denigrate, and ferment. Language can create negative stereotypes that marginalise and develop deep rooted prejudices, habits and conditioning. Not only are words powerful but how they are, platformed and used, shapes opinions and triggers action.
Examining today’s society, through the prism of a visitor from Mars, it would appear we are all involved in one hell of a social experiment. Now I hear the cogs whirring and people saying they aren’t involved in any such thing. Certainly, nobody has asked our permission. However, if you are one of the 4.2 billion active social media users then unwittingly you, like me, are part of this gigantic living experiment.
You may ask, what does this have to do with the power of words? For words to have impact they need to be, both, communicated and received. Social media and the internet provide an unmatched opportunity to communicate with others. Whether on a one-to-one basis or in the many echo chambers that pervade platforms like Twitter or Facebook and the like. And those words matter.
Without words these platforms are useless, empty spaces. However, combine the two and they help educate, inform, improve understanding and expand horizons. Language, in social media echo chambers can also amplify disinformation, sow confusion, raise the collective temperature of debate and perpetuate myths and untruths. Which can multiply exponentially and become mainstream movements. Dangerous, if a sizeable minority believes these tropes and acts on them. Such as the January 6th insurrection in the USA. Words matter.
You don’t have look far to see negative, sometimes aggressive, conversations and conspiracy theories; social media searches provide a plethora of such evidence. For instance, we can see the extreme, like the attempts to brainwash the Russian population by their governmental institutions, or the anti vax movements or ageist, misogynist and racist tropes that abound. So, words matter. What we say, how we say and receive them, matters.
Language is certainly not neutral, it bears meaning, positively or negatively. They shape opinion, attitudes, and our world views. Which when misused, can be damaging. For example, the World Health Organisation, when discussing ageism said “ageism is associated with earlier death (by 7.5 years), poorer physical and mental health, and slower recovery from disability in older age. Ageism also increases risky health behaviours, such as eating an unhealthy diet, drinking excessively or smoking, and reduces our quality of life. “
So, when anybody says that language doesn’t matter, sticks and stones………, think on, they do. Words matters a lot. As Boldies we have a responsibility to do our utmost to make a positive difference. We can do this by critically analysing the information placed in front of us to understand whether what is being portrayed has merit. We can think of the words we use and wherever we can, use positive language, narratives and examples. All of which will serve to undermine these negative tropes. In doing so we will all help create a more positive environment for people to thrive. Words matter!