Use Your Words (And Save a Life)

When I was a little girl – I’d say around four or so – I had this idea about where words came from. It seemed to me at the time that new words were coming my way almost every day. I was sure there was a big, beautiful building somewhere and that the building was filled with people who were busily inventing new words. I imagined them meeting and inventing. They would sit around a table, thinking up new and exciting words. Then, they would send them out into the land until they arrived in my neighborhood in a suburb outside of Chicago. I was sure there was a language company and its products would trickle down and out – for free.

I loved new words. I can still feel that little girl inside me, her eyes going wide with excitement: A new word, a new meaning, a new idea! She had a kind of happy delight in learning which grew, over the years, into an adult devotion to education.

When I went to college, I studied the things words are made of – stories and poetry. I became, first, a literature major. About halfway through my undergraduate years, I added a history major. I learned over the course of those four years that I loved words for the beauties they could create.

But increasingly, I was possessed by the ethics, the challenges inherent in making certain that words accurately described real human beings, real times and real events. It seemed to me that this task – discerning what I could be sure was real – was essential to creating a just society. Only when our words truly told us what was going on around us could we possibly do the work of reconciliation, understanding. Only then could we use our knowledge to make the world – truly – a better place. Studying history implied advocacy.

These days I find my eyes get opened very, very wide every day. That little girl inside me is expressing wonderment every morning when I read the news. She has even located the building where all the words are. The best words, in fact.

It’s nice, there. Gold curtains and busts and paintings and many people who are working very, very hard to create not just words and phrases, but whole histories.

She (and I) have learned new phrases. “Alternative facts” is our favorite. It seems we are not alone. The entire nation loves this phrase. “Post-truth” doesn’t seem as popular, but I like that one, too.

An amazing, daily outpouring of stories based on alternative facts are dizzying my adult mind. Three million people voted fraudulently in the last election! Refugees are dangerous! People got massacred in Kentucky and the press didn’t even notice!

I imagine all those people in that fine house huddling around the table working on these amazing stories, choosing those amazing words.

Of course, when I got to graduate school I learned that my equation of ethical historicizing and creating justice was too simple. After all, as Michael Foucault wrote, history is not an object. Discourse is. Discourse creates a set of rules for a given time period. Statements have a material reality: The rules of discourse are rules of power.

So the rules of our discourse have the capacity to destroy as well as to inspire. The rules we choose can save. They can also kill. That is exactly what will happen as long as that nice building and the people in it keep continue to churn out words, phrases, and stories as they have over the past weeks.

They have the best words for doing exactly that.

But guess what. I’ve learned words. So have you. Ours might be better. Let’s use them, and find out.

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