I am this close to being done with Rebbeca Solnit’s new collection of essays The Mother of All Questions. It’s a small collection and I think most of them have been published elsewhere, but no matter, since I have only read a couple of them out in the wild.
I love Solnit. Not only does she seem like a really awesome person, but she is very aware and careful to say what she means and mean what she says. Language matters, and she says it over and over again in these essays. I thought I would share with you a quote from the longest and best essay in the book, “A Short History of Silence.”
The task of calling things by their true names, of telling the truth to the best of our abilities, of knowing how we got here, of listening particularly to those who have been silenced in the past, of seeing how the myriad stories fit together and break apart, of using any privilege we may have been handed to undo privilege or expand its scope is each of our tasks. It’s how we make the world.
I am reminded of the rhyme from when I was a kid that was an attempt to shield myself from playground name calling — Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me. But of course words hurt, if they didn’t we wouldn’t need magic spells to ward off the attack.
I know it is an attempt to comfort, but what damage does telling kids that words don’t matter cause? We all know it’s a lie. Does the lie make it more or less likely for kids to grow up and say things like then candidate Trump — words don’t matter, it was only locker room talk. Does it let people be dismissive, let them off the hook for things they say? Does it make it more likely to silence those who have been attacked by words because it implies they are too sensitive? Or can’t take a joke.
Words do matter. Words can be weapons or words can heal. Use them wisely.