All of the words matter. The words we read, the words that form our conversations with others, the words we listen to, the words that flow as private inner monologues, the words we type out into the social media universe: Words are the way we describe and make sense of the world around us. They lead us into our inhabited lives.
American editor, poet and novelist Toni Morrison died recently at 88. A master storyteller of the black American experience, she had an extraordinary grasp of the power, uses and possibilities of language and story.
Morrison won the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature and was among the earliest black female novelists to reach a global audience. She opened up a uniquely intimate vision of African-American family relationships, systemic trauma and oppression, black culture and generational resilience to readers around the world.
To lose her astounding literary voice now, at the apex of her powers, seems a particular loss to our nation and those her loved her. Yet even as our world is evermore broken and torn by racial fears, her spoken and published words can rend, mend and repair, helping us with the long, hard work of healing.
All of the words matter. Now briefly contrast the way words are used in current politics: the press secretaries, cable news personalities, white supremacists’ chants, hate websites, long, violent manifestos of mass murders repeating the “great replacement” doctrine of frightened young white men, unedited falsehoods and slander of our president’s tweets and speeches and the innumerable anonymous sarcastic, false or violent comments posted on our social media sites every day.
Which of these sources of words, the novel or the online screed, tells more of the truth? The words of a singular writer of personal fiction or the hundreds, thousands of voices of the agitated body politic?
Because words matter, because words form our vision of the world and how we ought to conduct our lives, I implore you to see that the world of words you allow yourself to read, hear and speak help shapes our human experience — not just for yourself, but for those you live with, those with whom you share your work, your family, your church, neighborhood and country.
What are your sources of political information? Are these sources well-respected organizations of professional journalism with long-form, sourced articles of seasoned reporting? Or are they the rushed online articles of hurry-up digital news?
What kind of conversations are you prone to have — those that are full of personal sharing, opinion and support or the anxious trading of gossip and innuendo? How much time do you spend scrolling through your manipulated Facebook news feed? Do you see so much political hate speech in the forms of rapidly shared memes that you have stopped noticing the influence these have on your happiness and confidence in others?
We live in technologically chaotic times. The explosion of instantaneous and multi-platformed technologies have frequently overwhelmed our ability to determine what is true. While the Russian government spent millions of dollars and human hours successfully manipulating Facebook to help swing our 2016 presidential election, we know this is just a part of the challenge we face as a nation. And while we can’t control what others do, we can add value to the world by choosing to value our language.
Because all the words matter that we choose to read, to listen to, to write and pass along, may you live a life of faith that seeks works and words of truth, compassion, understanding and justice. Whether the human race has much of a future may actually depend upon how we describe that future, its problems and possibilities, with words to one another.