As children, we are told that words can never hurt us. This warning, of course, is proof that they can and do. We learn this when we are called names or taunted by other children. We learn this by watching the adults around us–our parents if they fight and argue, our teachers when they praise or criticize us, the clerks, the doctors, the office people, the myriad other grown-ups we encounter who dance around us and one another through a strategic game of words. We learn through this game of words that not only do words matter, but they are everything.
Contemporary culture has brought new light to this observation. Donald Trump has called for a ban on Muslim immigrants to the US. Ted Cruz has suggested that Muslim communities need intensified policing. Ben Carson, while he was still a presidential candidate, argued that a Muslim should never become president of the country–even if elected. These statements have been met with outrage. But they have also found an audience in the mainstream of American political thought. Why?
We can, of course, begin to answer this question by noting that the fear surrounding Muslims is not new. The way was paved for these kinds of statements long before this election season. The concern about Muslims rose to prominence beginning in the late 1970s. The 1979 Iranian Revolution and the subsequent hostage crisis was a watershed moment in the American encounter with the Muslim world; the attacks of September 11th were another. Between these two moments–the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the September 11th attacks -the central image we have had of Muslims is an image of violence – ongoing wars, revolutions, terrorist attacks, oppressive regimes. Almost all of this has been attributed to Muslims as a group. The problem of violence in this context has often been presented as a problem of Muslim identity as such, a problem of what Muslims believe, a problem of Islam. The 2016 presidential election campaign has merely made explicit what has been implicit until now. What, after all, was President Obama denying when he insisted that he was not Muslim?
The temptation is to reduce all of this to hate, to a creeping xenophobia, to a fear of this new “Other” thought to be infiltrating the American heartland. But to do so would be to misunderstand something else: our failure to appreciate language itself, what it does, how it shapes our consciousness and, yes, how it hurts. The problem we might attend to is how this has come to be.
The significance of words in contemporary culture has emerged in a paradoxical way. One the one hand, words simply fly. They fly thoughtlessly and quickly through Twitter, Facebook, and the myriad other social media platforms where we are invited to express ourselves. Where these words go is often a mystery, but because they are so quickly replaced by other words, they do seem to matter. And yet, on the other hand, when our words do not disappear, they fly more quickly and more forcefully. Twitter alone, with its “retweet” capabilities has been a force multiplier for the power of words, showing us that words are the making and unmaking of our reality -launching revolutions and social movements, shaping our social and political discourse, framing how we see and interact with one another. Words create the world in which we live and because they do, they can also destroy it.
But there is more to this than technology. The power of language is a function of the fact that it is the only thing we share. This is because life, as such, is a story and life’s story can only begin in the context of community, a space of publicity that is distinct not only from the private realm but that is also, “in common.” This is what Hannah Arendt called “the world itself” – a space that “gathers us together and yet prevents our falling over each other.” But Arendt also notes that the emergence of “society” as a mass formation has not meant the expansion of the community. Rather, it has meant its dissolution. “The world between [people]” Arendt observed, “has lost its power to gather them together, to relate and to separate them.” Arendt identified the proliferation of technology as one cause for this dissolution. To this we might add technology’s globalizing effects. The world has flattened and brought us together, but in doing so, we have become strangers to one another.
But just as the diagnosis of problems in our discourse has been partial, so have the solutions. The freedom of speech is pit against political correctness On one hand, political correctness is thought to represent the beginning censorship; it is the first step toward totalitarianism. The argument on the other side suggests that a measure of care should be taken in public discourse for the sake of securing social harmony. Here, the idea is that by discriminating between words, by entering the domain of public discourse cautiously, we will somehow be creating a world safe for difference.
Which is correct? The first? The second? Arguments for and against each point of view can be made. What I wish to point out is that speech is policed all the time. This is the paradoxical lesson we learn in childhood when we are told that sticks and stones can break our bones, but words never hurt. And this lesson is reinforced in all sorts of ways throughout our lives–in our social relations and through the cultural forces that shape how we think and live. In order to successfully and responsibly navigate through life, we quickly learn to abide by the lessons of language because language transforms us and our world in both good and bad ways as we use it to foster social relations and to locate ourselves in the midst of the social. Thus the tension we find in coming to terms with our freedom to speak is consequential to the fact that language is indeed powerful. To call for silence is to destroy the world, but so is the failure to attend to the effects of the words we use. Both fail to account for the power of language. The answer then is the uncertain–to learn to live within this tension. The difficulty arises when powerful figures reserve for themselves the ability to abandon this negotiation and, by virtue of their social power, privilege, and status, to say whatever they want. This is when words become the instruments of totalitarianism. When the normal feelings of unease become an intoxicating, overpowering social force, they create their own reality. Language builds on this feeling, reinforces it, causes it to grow and destroys the world.
Maryam El-Shall teaches English and Humanities at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Her research explores the intersections of cultural, historical and political discourses