The power of words

It is the force that drives them that causes the damage.

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Words can be a powerful thing. They wield a power that can leave scars that may never heal. But the words themselves are harmless. They are benign as a sword, inert as a bullet. It is the force that drives them that causes the damage.

It is the speaker of such words who imprints them with a stigma that creates hate, violence and fear. The power of speech is frequently downplayed, degraded to a mere collection of syllables that have no lasting effect. But it is words that drive people to action.

Some words carry a stigma that leaves an indelible mark. The recent actions of the University of Oklahoma chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon are a prime example of this: one word made national news and caused the downfall of the UO chapter.

It is also imprinting a black mark on the fraternity as a whole, the effects of which have already begun, specifically as an investigation of racism in all chapters of the national organization. The ringleaders of the infamous chant have since apologized for the incident, but it is unlikely many people believe them.

After all, whether or not they say they are sorry, or that the incident was a terrible mistake, it doesn’t change their belief in what they were chanting. It was not a Freudian slip, but an established chant they took the time to learn—and that implies solidarity with the ideas it promotes.

Racial slurs have special power in that they carry such a stigma that a person is either comfortable with the word or they are not. When a person freely speaks it, they believe it.

That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

— Neil Armstrong

Whereas some words create controversy, others can create far more devastating effects. Adolf Hitler was a master orator who managed to unite an entire nation into believing in acts of war and genocide. Although men with guns backed his ideas, there is no denying what he said moved people to action. Someone who can use words to control a single person is intelligent. Someone who can do the same to millions is a genius. And the geniuses are all madmen.

Words also have the power to promote strength and unity. They can mark great moments that carry with them a sense of pride in the ideas they convey. No matter your age or religion, everybody knows when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, he said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The words he chose marked that moment in time and strengthened the power of a nation united by an unprecedented achievement. It is doubtful that something like, “Hey, that’s a lot of dirt,” would have strengthened that moment. If anything, it would have devalued it.

But in the end, the only thing that gives a word its power is people. We choose what to say and how to say it in order to engender a specific emotion or generate a certain reaction. We should be careful what we say and understand what is powerless to some is devastating to others.