Friday, January 28, 2011

The Power of Words

As a poet, I spend a lot of time thinking about words and the power and meanings they hold. In a poem, each and every word is important and can change the whole tone, mood, or meaning. This can be one of the biggest struggles of writing a poem and one of the most difficult to teach in a creative writing class. Words, however, are important in all aspects of our lives. I've also been thinking about the power of words in relation to various events from the last few weeks.

The shootings in Arizona began a discussion over the language used in political debate in this country. I am not naive enough to blame one person or even one party. I don't personally know the motives of that shooter, but I do think the discussion that has followed is an important one whether it is directly tied to the shootings or not. Our leaders and talking heads on TV must learn that the words they choose are vital and have power. When you are using language infused with violence, it is not a stretch to think that someone might be encouraged, over time, to act violently. People are too quick to label things, nickname things, and use fiery and often absurd language and phrasing. Only time will tell if the current discussion will actually change anything.

There also continues to be a large discussion about bullying in our school system and particularly bullying of gay students or students perceived to be gay. This also comes down to language and words. We are often taught not to let words get to us and that somehow they don't matter, but I think most of us quickly figure out how wrong that advice is. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but actually words will hurt you. I've been called a fag many different times in my life and while I can come to terms with it and deal with it, it still hurts each time that word is thrown at me in hatred.

As a teacher, I see that students really don't understand the power of their words or the consequences (I've even seen this in a few of my friendships). What I find most interesting is that we almost need writing more now than ever before. Our lives have gone digital and the primary way to communicate through most of this technology is the written word. We now talk through text messages, emails, blogs, Facebook updates, and tweets. We are, in many ways, writing more than ever before, yet our writing and word choice is getting worse and worse, which I see all the time at my job.

In the last two years, I have taught primarily online, which means I talk a great deal to students through the written word. I have never in my teaching experience received such outrageous and inflammatory emails. Students who, in the end, might only be mildly upset or confused about something will send me an email filled with lines like "you don't know how to teach and I demand a new grade immediately." They often use all caps as well. If I get them to come meet with me face to face, they are these quiet shy kids who suddenly aren't so angry.

My students typically hate writing and learning about writing and somehow can't see the value in learning to communicate in a clear and professional manner. We have to change this. It seems our reliance on writing combined with the ability to hide behind our computer screens or phones have turned many people into monsters. They use writing constantly, yet don't care what they are saying or how it is coming off to others.

Words are important. Words do have meaning and power. No matter what people say, the ability to communicate through the written word is still a major way to succeed in life. To me it comes down to thinking more and writing just a little less.

-Stephen (Words Chosen Carefully)

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