“Words count” or “words matter,” is a phrase with widespread currency these days. It is often invoked to call attention to pejorative, degrading words and phrases uttered by politicians about individuals or groups. But words always matter, everywhere. Those who now impress upon us that “words matter” try to impress upon us the idea that “words have power” and are not neutral or innocuous in their consequences.
Words can brand; words can degrade; words can hurt; words can incite violent acts; words can kill. For decades, children have learned in grade school the saying, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” Yet we all know that names do indeed hurt. They are often intended to inflict emotional pain.
I hasten to add that, of course, words can also serve us in very constructive ways. They are necessary to name and to label in order to distinguish different aspects of reality. For instance, physicians rely on the power of words in their careful selection of a medical diagnosis, the correct name for the disease or condition they will then treat. An incorrect diagnosis (word or phrase) can lead to the wrong treatment, and often to tragic results for a patient. At the same time, even clinical names can be used to brand and distance oneself from other people: e.g., cancer, AIDS, mental illness, etc.
Yet . . . words and phrases do not do their work in a social vacuum. In particular, the “power of words” themselves is often inseparable from the power wielded by or attributed to the person or group who are speaking and writing them. ”Words of power” often carry frightening weight. Consider the question, “Whose words count more than others’?” Whose words do not matter to those who have the power and authority to give words value, or to devalue and discount them? Then the more frightening question that follows: Whose lives do not matter to those who have the power to enforce their words?
I immediately think of the poisoned water in the lead pipes in Flint, Michigan, that flows into largely African American neighborhoods. Blacks’ reclamation of their dignity in the assertion that “Black Lives Matter” vies culturally with the implicit symbolic equation of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again” = “Make America White Again.” To paraphrase George Orwell, in the light of power, some words are more equal than others.
Dissidents to authoritarian leaders and their regimes – from corporate to religious to national – admonish people to “speak truth to power” to counter official lies. Meanwhile, authoritarian leaders and their propaganda wizards – think of Josef Goebbels in Nazi Germany – never cease to speak power to truth by creating and imposing a new language which they endlessly repeat until people are beaten numb into submission by repetition. Brute power in concert with charismatic power rely on their unreality becoming their followers’ new and only reality, as belief and faith silence and even forbid any capacity for critical thought. Ever so quietly, the external voices who overpower independent thought, are reinforced and succeeded by inner voices who colonize, dominate, conquer and replace one’s own voice. They overtake your body and soul.
Nothing is immune to the power of authority to infect and often kill any attempt to test reality oneself, for those in power insist that only they have the right and power to redefine reality. Consider, from the end of August through the first week of September 2019, the monstrous Hurricane Dorian first devastated the Bahamas, then headed north. President Trump, armed with his own map, insisted that Dorian was first headed toward Alabama, despite meteorologists’ insistence that Alabama had never been in the hurricane’s path. True to his own conviction, President Trump dug into his own propaganda, and declared the scientific community to be spreading “fake news.”
President Trump’s assertion of his meteorological infallibility bulldozed under the scientific method. Yet, meteorological weather forecasters can only correct themselves, learn and be of use to their audience if they not only can permit themselves to be wrong, but also constantly monitor their own reality testing. For Trump, by contrast, personal belief overrode contradictory evidence. Fortunately, in this instance, scientific voices ultimately prevailed.
More broadly, it is well known that President Trump has ordered that the phrase “climate change” be deleted from many official government websites. It is as if to forbid the word is to erase the phenomenon the word represents: e.g., word magic that equates and fuses word with thing.
By contrast the presidential author of so many new imagined “realities” not only would not be wrong, but could not be wrong. Speaking power to truth could not imagine those who claim to speak truth to power could ever be right. Power does everything it can to silence science.
If you know how to listen and to read, you can detect the creation and enforcement of Words of Power all the time. Consider two very recent events: President Trump’s July 25, 2019, telephone call with Ukraine President Vlodymyr Zelenskiy and the U.S. drone air missiles that struck the Baghdad airport on Jan. 2, killing Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleiman.
According to many people who witnessed President Trump’s phone conversation, Trump pressured Zelenskiy to investigate Democrats, specifically to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden (now a presidential candidate) and his son, Hunter. U.S. military aid to Ukraine would be withheld until Ukraine agreed to undertake the investigation, which Trump sought to put to his own political advantage. Quickly, the Latin phrase, “quid pro quo,” (“This for that,” or “I’ll do this, if you’ll do that.”) came to be widely used by presidential critics and observers to characterize the arrangement Trump was seeking. Trump and his advocates adamantly denied that what Trump had asked Zelenskiy for was a “quid pro quo.” So: was the arrangement Trump sought “quid pro quo” or not? I will return to this question shortly.
The second event I consider here is the U.S. drone missile airstrike that killed Suleiman. General Suleiman was long a leading military strategist for the Iranian military. President Trump immediately called the commander’s killing a “decisive defensive action” designed to “protect” Americans and American interests. Soon many commentators and policy scholars labeled the bombing act a political “assassination,” which Trump and his supporters vehemently denied. So, was killing General Suleiman a “decisive defensive action” or an “assassination”?
Consider these questions in light of this discussion of the “power of words” and “words of power.” Even if the political exchange that President Trump sought with Zelenskiy could be shown to fit perfectly with the translation from Latin and the legal usage of the term, “quid pro quo,” President Trump’s denial points, I think, to something deeper than simply a contradiction. It illustrates both (1) magical thinking (that is, “what is, is not, because I decree it.”), together with, (2) by virtue of President Trump’s authority and charisma as leader (that is, magical powers project onto and into him by his “base”/supporters), the power possessed by “words of power.”
In simple terms, “If I say it, it is true” because of who I am and who I represent to you.” Whatever classicists, philosophers and legal scholars agree to about the correct meanings and interpretation of “quid pro quo,” the personal, magical and political power of the president literally trumps any debate. One who bears words of power embodies and has been given the authority to define reality.
The same goes for the U.S. bombing that killed Suleiman. In Lewis Carroll’s famous novel, Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty says, “When I use a word ... it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less." Alice asks if he can make words mean so many different things. Humpty Dumpty's response: "The question is ... which is to be master — that’s all.'”
President Trump, the master, likewise accounted for the presidentially ordered killing of Suleiman in words the meaning of which he chose – and by extension, was psychologically and politically licensed to impose on the event that thereby defined the event. Here personal psychology and group psychology dovetailed, and President Trump’s magical thinking prevailed (To put it in words Humpty Dumpty might say: What I call it is what I call it.) Those who defined the identical event as “assassination” were not simply logically unpersuasive, but they had little or no power to press their case.
Words of power thus psychologically and politically overpower the power of words themselves. In fact, the very meaning of the word(s) becomes defined by those who are empowered to make and impose the meanings. What is more – and worse – people often internalize the power, charisma, and propaganda. It occupies their inner spaces. It becomes their own meaning as well as the meaning of those people who are “in power.” So, to conclude this journey: Be mindful of the power of words. Even more, beware the words of power.
Howard F. Stein, an applied, psychoanalytic, medical, and organizational anthropologist, and organizational consultant as well as poet, is professor emeritus in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, where he taught for nearly 35 years.