The Power of Words

“The pen is mightier than the sword”

An old truism that is mostly true. Swords are intimidating. They show their power openly. Everyone knows that a sword can kill and it looks like it. The sharp edges draw your attention to that deadly power almost immediately. But the truth is that a sword is an inanimate object. It must have the will of a person behind it. The ability of the sword to kill is dependent on that the person holding it. Words on the other hand hide their power. They are soft and hard to grasp. No one thinks of words as deadly weapons, and many will laugh when I tell you that they are more deadly than any sword. But the truth is that words are behind almost every murder or suicide. Worse than that, words can do their damage without the speaker having any intent to hurt. A careless “there’s no one here” can be more painful than a literal dagger in the back. Words can drive people to hate each other, or worse ignore each other.

There is only one defense against the power of words – recognize it. Words work subtly, slipping between your thoughts unnoticed to do their damage, but if you notice them they can’t change your thoughts without your willing them to. Of course, the whole point of language is to share ideas and change each other’s minds so that we all come around to one way of thinking, so we shouldn’t be too zealous in rooting out the power of words. The point is to be aware of what the words are trying to do so you can be deliberate in their use and in accepting what another person is trying to tell you (or possibly telling you without realizing it).

There are two major issues that I’ve been following and analyzing recently. I know, I’m a nerd when it comes to language, but let that be a benefit to you. One is the whole flap over feminism in gaming circles specifically the reaction to Anita Sarkeesian and her “Feminist Frequency” video series. The second is the rape case in Steubenville and the media coverage of the case. Both cases are really about the power disparities between two groups of people and how the language of each side tries to preserve or gain power in the situation.

My friend Leonard Suskin posted an interesting discussion about the vocabulary choices of the people criticizing Ms. Sarkeesian for her analysis of subtle sexism in our entertainments. As he points out, these responses use the word “complain” to talk about Ms. Sarkeesian’s analysis of the gender stereotypes in games, movies and other cultural phenomenon. I want to dig deeper into that word choice.

Complaining is usually seen as a weak or whiny dissatisfaction with something. We complain about cold French Fries at our favorite fast food restaurant. We complain about the silly yet annoying habits of our significant others. We complain about the weather when it prevents us from doing what we want to do. It is an emotional state rarely informed by facts and almost never preceded by careful analysis. So to refer to the Feminist Frequency videos as “complaining” is diminishing the point. Ms. Sarkeesian isn’t complaining about games, rather she is giving an analysis of them. Admittedly the analysis is somewhat biased – but she’s upfront about it. She’s not looking for equality, but rather is explaining the inequality that she sees in the games and movies. Yes, she does have an agenda, that’s not the same thing as complaining.

I find this an interesting use of language. Here the critiquers are trying to show how they are just like Ms. Sarkeesian by complaining about her complaints. In their case, they haven’t done all the analysis of their topic the way that Ms. Sarkeesian has, nor are they able to site their examples and sources as she does in her videos. Yet by using the word “complain” they are attempting to belittle her efforts. Anyone who knows how to vet their sources won’t be swayed by these amateur videos. However, there are plenty of people out there who won’t even think about the differences before letting their minds be swayed by that one word. I have to admit that I missed it. I wasn’t swayed by the videos for other credibility issues, but that one almost got me. By referring to Ms. Sarkeesian’s analysis as “complaining” re-frames her analysis as not a formal discussion but one that is emotion driven and unsupported. I doubt that any of the videos I saw (and like Mr. Suskin I’m not going to link to them as I don’t want to drive up their page views) even realize what they were doing. They were for the most part just reacting to something that made them angry. Rather than analyze it and figure out what bothered them about it, they reduced it to “complaining” in their own minds.

The second issue, reporting on the Steubenville rape case, the interesting language was used by professional reporters who really should know the impact of their words. Just in case there is anyone out there who doesn’t know: in Steubenville, Ohio several football players dragged a drunk underage girl around from party to party and raped her. Their antics were captured on cell phone video and posted publicly. However it took several months of blogging about the videos before officials decided to pursue the crime. While there is much to be upset about in this story, I’m going to focus on the word choices of CNN reporters (yes I’m picking on CNN because they are a big professional company and really should know better).

Words can frame an issue to pull attention to one part at the expense of another. The reporters at CNN chose to frame this story in terms of “those poor football players.” Recently, when two of the rapists were on trial and eventually convicted, the reporting focused on how horrible this incident was for these “promising young football players”. They talked about how the rapists were going to lose career opportunities. Through all the coverage they skipped over the effects of the incident on the girl. They never once talked about how she was going to have to live with this for the rest of her life.

There isn’t a specific word here, but rather the absence of them. Here the framing was done by making the boys the subject of the reporting. In other words they became the main characters. So everything was about them. Well if the story is about them then why do we even need to talk about their victim. Of course, it makes sense, we are talking about them – they are the ones who have stuff happening to them right now.

The problem here is that by making the rapists the main characters, they become the heroes. What does that mean for the girl they raped. It puts her in the antagonist role. All of which is playing into our cultures unfortunate habits of worshiping athletes and blaming the victim. A habit we are so used to we don’t see the damage it does, until you realize that the girl has been receiving death threats because of what her accusations have done to those boys. Did you catch that? Because the boys are the main characters, all the bad things that are happening to them now are attributed to the antagonist, not to the consequences of their own actions. In other words, those promising football players screwed their own prospects when they decided that it would be fun to drag a drugged girl around and rape her. They blew their own chances at scholarships when they videoed the party and posted it on line. No amount of framing them as the subjects will change that. What it will do is cut out the discussions of what part others played in this decision. The conversation isn’t about what made them think that they could do that. We aren’t talking about whether their sentence is fair to the victim or her family. Discussions about rape culture and the connection to hero worship are shunted off into the corners of the internet. All because professional reporters decided that the story was about the boys.

Never underestimate the power of your word choices. The same goes for your grammatical choices. They say just as much about you and your attitudes as what you think you are saying. At the same time, pay attention to the choices of people around you. A little analysis goes a long way toward understand the real message, and the motivation behind the message. When you know those things, you will be able to better manage the influence of the world on your thoughts.

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