Words Don't Have The Power That Intentions Have
Remember that little rhyme we used to
say as kids, when our feelings were hurt, “sticks and stones will
break my bones, but words will never hurt me”?
There is something to that little
lesson that I am reminded about now, in my adult years. I recently observed a conversation where several people felt one way about a word–that it shouldn’t be used because it had a history that was viewed as derogatory in nature. And another group felt another way about it–that their use of the word was positive and meaningful to them and had nothing to do with a derogatory history experienced by others. The conversation got heated, ugly even. Respect and consideration flew out the window.
powerful as they may be, should not have power over us. To me, words
are nothing without intentions to support them. Intentions can exist
without words—the smile of a person walking by, the holding of a
door as you walk into a building, the hug of a child—they convey a
depth of truth that words alone cannot.
We live in an environment where words
have been given such a heightened power over people—they make us
feel insignificant, belittled and betrayed. And, anymore, that can
happen at any turn of conversation. I don’t want to feel this way, I
don’t want words to have power over me and my feelings. I want my
words to combine with my intentions to convey my truth. Never do I
want those words to be interpreted in a way different from my
But, that kind of thing happens all the time. Doesn’t it? Someone takes your words and projects their feelings about them into your intentions. And, bam! The context, your point, the whole conversation goes sideways. That mucks up a conversation with little hope of recovery.
I am part of a community where some
words, like the R-word, have been stricken from the vocabulary. The
problem is that people have replaced that word with other words to
convey the same intentions—negative, derogatory, dehumanizing
intentions. Mean people with bad intentions will always find a way to
push their negative agenda across.
The R-word is in my wheelhouse, so I will use it as an example. That word has a history, like many
other words related to groups of people and their identities. That
history has driven not only the definition of the R-word, but it also
gives a powerful life to the word by leaving an indelible impression
of intention. So that, any time the word is used, regardless of the
intention of the user, the communal understanding is negative,
Now, to be fair, that is pretty much an accurate understanding of intention when the R-word is used. People
don’t usually use it as a cheerful praise and compliment.
But, what if they did? Stay with me here.
What if someone took an old word, like
the R-word, and built a whole new definition of that word, and used
it with good intentions to drive that positive definition home?
Would we be hurt? Would we feel
dehumanized when we heard it? Would we tell them to stop using the
word? Would we project our feelings of the historically painful
impact of the word on the new, positive impact they are trying to
Probably. That’s pretty much how that conversation I mentioned early went down.
I think my knee jerk reaction would
be to cringe and feel a pang of pain. But, I would make an effort to
recognize their intention to change the rhetoric and I would remind
myself that words alone have no power over me. I would also recognize
that the change does not alter the painful history of the word, but
it could create a positive future.
The world is complicated. Words, for
me, are still not “sticks and stones that break my bones”. I
honor the intentions of people over the words people use more and
more every day. Because, I recognize we all come from varied and
complex backgrounds. Those backgrounds are full of baggage and
history that shape the definitions of the words in our vocabulary. I
don’t want to hinder my opportunity for meaningful
communication by projecting my feelings about a word as the intentions of another.
Let’s be real here. We can’t know the history and abuse of every word in all circles of life. We just can’t, even if we want to, even if we try our best to be informed and sensitive. We have to have more realistic expectations of each other, don’t we? I mean, the world as a whole has such unreasonable expectations of us, let’s cut each other some slack. I plan to, anyway.
What if we all did that? Would there be
less contention? Probably. Wouldn’t that be a good thing? Indeed.