If there’s any period in recent history that can show us why words matter, it’s May 2020.
A month where a powerful slogan finally received the attention it deserved and united people worldwide in the fight against structural racism. The realisation that the words we use reflect the racial inequalities that have shrouded us for too long, a cause for much self-reflection and soul-searching.
A month where, as coronavirus continued to spread in many countries across the globe, we came to see connections between the leaders who have successfully managed the pandemic and those who haven’t. Where mixed messages from governments and the words they use are a matter of life and death.
A month where a leading advisor to the UK government twisted the truth in a lockdown-breaking scandal, evoking outrage from the public, the Tory party, and the civil service.
Why words matter
In a recent conversation on Twitter, someone asked: does it matter what words we use if they mean the same thing?
And yes, It matters a lot.
Take, for example, how the black deaf community signs ‘Black Lives Matter’. The murder of George Floyd caused many to reconsider the nuances in how they communicated the phrase in American Sign Language, debating whether ‘important’ or ‘cherised’ are more appropriate than ‘matter’.
In a recent LA Times article, Jonathan Webb, the president of the national Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf said he “often finds himself defaulting to “important” when interpreting white speakers, and “cherish” when signing for black ones. When speaking for himself as a black man, he signs “cherish” exclusively.”
Michael Agyin, a black deaf activist in Compton, expands on the idea, saying that “cherish” reflects a particular sense of vulnerability among black deaf people.
On the subject of Black Lives Matter, you only have to scan these news headlines to see how words have the power to influence our narratives and opinions:
'Minneapolis: A photographer was shot in the eye'
'15 Not-Peaceful Things the Cops Were Recorded Doing During This Weekend’s Black Lives Matter Protests'
'BREAKING: Pepper spray caused a short stampede in Lafayette Park during a peaceful march honoring George Floyd'
Using a passive voice and euphemisms, these reports soften the facts and divert responsibility: police shot a photographer in the eye, cops were recorded doing violent things, officers pepper-sprayed peaceful protesters.
By failing to use the right words that speak the truth, events are misrepresented and minimised, people are left feeling disempowered and unheard, their perpetrators are excused.
As the poet and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words.”