by Bethany Fischer
The first time anyone ever called me fat was in kindergarten. During recess, I overheard some first-grade girls say I was “chubby” while I waited for my turn on the swingset. I cried and ran to a teacher, who told me that “sticks and stones may break your bones, but words should never hurt you.” Afterward, those girls and I were gathered in a classroom, where it was explained to me that they were just joking, and I should be less sensitive.
Comments like these followed me through the entirety of my public school career. I was a shy girl with low self-esteem, and I learned to deal with these comments and the way they made me feel by writing. I was told that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” If I reclaimed those words and used them to empower me, then they could no longer hurt me.
I always found the tension between these two phrases to be problematic. On one hand, “words can never hurt you.” The only thing that matters is people’s actions; their words are just words, said quickly and disappearing in the same breath with which they were spoken. On the other hand, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Words do matter, have weight, and are stronger than weapons that are meant to harm by design. Both statements can’t be true.
In Defense of the Pen
When I first joined HBU’s writing program, the first thing I learned about writing was that “writing is just choosing the right word over the wrong word.” Words hold more than just definitions; they communicate ideas, illustrate images, and engage our senses even when external stimuli aren’t present. Words that have the same meaning don’t always paint the same picture.
For example, if I were describing TikTok singer Lauren Paley’s singing voice, I could describe it as “beautiful.” But, does “beautiful” fully encapsulate the feeling I am trying to evoke? It is true that her voice is “beautiful;” it is pleasing to the ear. But does the word “beautiful” describe the goosebumps that prick along my arms when she sings in her stairwell or the hair that stands at attention when her high notes flutter with vibrato? A better word to describe her voice would be “haunting.” Her voice is beautiful, but it leaves me uneasy. Per the Oxford Dictionary, it is “poignant and evocative; difficult to ignore or forget.”
If I were writing an article about Lauren Paley, it wouldn’t be wrong of me to say that her voice is “beautiful,” but it would be irresponsible. It is my responsibility as a writer to describe my ideas accurately and effectively. It is not enough for me to say that her voice is “beautiful.” That would be like painting the Starry Night without all of the shades of blue. Using the word “beautiful” instead of “haunting” is understating her talent, the way her voice makes me feel, and the image that I want to paint for my readers. As a writer, it is my duty to choose the right words, because words are all that I have.
Why Does It Matter?
Describing a TikTok singer with an undercharged word may not seem like a high stake situation, but it brings up a deeper issue; the words that we use matter. They matter because they are capable of influencing your thoughts, emotions, opinions, and actions. Good writers take the utmost care in choosing the right words because they know that the weapons they wield are powerful, and we expect this of them because writing words is their job.
The problem with this is that writing is not the only profession where words matter. People of influence hold a heavy burden because the words that they use impact more than an opinion about a singer. We choose our leaders because we expect them to act in the best interest of our people. This includes using the right words. An effective leader can use words to uplift their community, to instill hope and courage, to encourage unity, and to bring about positive change for our future. An ineffective leader can use words to instill fear, to spread lies, to discredit and destroy the progress that has been hundreds of years in the making. In his inaugural speech, President Joe Biden said “at their best, the words of a president can inspire. At their worst, they can incite.” Because I am a writer, and because I know that words can change the way that I interpret things, I know this statement to be true.
Our figureheads don’t always hold as much physical power as we think they do. Elected leaders pass legislature and fight out their difference of opinions in court, but it is the people who embody and employ their ideas. When a leader closes their country’s borders to a certain demographic of people, it is not the leader checking passports at the airport. When a leader builds a wall to keep the disenfranchised away from safety, it is not him in the Rio Grande Valley stacking bricks. That leader has charged the people with the task of enacting their ideals on the country.
Just like their legislation, a leader’s words charge the people. That is why we elected them. We like and believe in what they say until we don’t. When we stop believing in their words, we replace them in the next election. If we continue to believe in their words, we embody them. When leaders use words like “stolen” to describe the very process that elected them in the first place, people will have a certain response. “Stolen” implies illegality, that something was taken without permission without intent to return. It is not the same as “lost,” and does not evoke the same emotion. Telling a large, armed crowd of people to “fight like hell” is not the same as telling them to “protest peacefully.” The word “fight” implies violence. In fact, the word “violence” is used in the first two definitions of “fight” in the Oxford Dictionary.
Just like a writer, the most powerful tool a leader has is their words. If they can’t use words effectively, then they can’t convince people to vote for them. The best track record in the world means very little if they can’t use words to describe how their record translates into what the people want and need from society today. People will sometimes say that their “actions speak for themselves,” and this may be true to a certain extent. But words also speak for themselves. Leaders who use hateful and damaging rhetoric either believe in what they are saying or they are lying. Neither option is a good one for the people that they lead.
I still remember the words spoken by those first-grade girls. They had the power to influence the way I saw myself and the way I loved myself for the rest of my life. If the words of a few 7-year-olds had the power to shape my life, what kind of power do the words of world leaders hold?