Ten years ago this month, I founded Wordsmithie. Last year, my team and I began brainstorming ways to mark the occasion; and this year, as COVID-19 emerged, our plans morphed from celebration to service. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, they have shifted again. Instead of writing about our agency’s past decade for our anniversary post, I want to talk about the power and urgency of words.
At this crystallizing moment, we need to use our words wisely and well to drive lasting change. We must cherish our words as the markers of our freedoms, and restore their purpose when they are used to divide us in the name of political conquest.
Words, in and of themselves, are mostly agnostic. When read by the eye, they are mere squiggles of ink on paper or back-lit symbols on our device screens. When spoken, words need a human ear to absorb their intent. Their collective meaning is what lends words the power to inform and entertain, to persuade and incite.
Some words—“Love,” “Freedom,” “Justice,” and “Peace” among them—stand alone in their ability to open hearts and minds. But a gathering of words, strung together like beads on a necklace, can transport us, enlighten us, and move us to act. Sadly, when spat from the recesses of bitter minds, words can cause great harm, spawning hatred and lending credence to cruelty.
“I can’t breathe” is more than a collection of words. It is an artifact of a fading life. A plea for mercy. And a reminder that even with our dying breaths, we still use words to connect with someone, anyone, in hopes that we will be heard and seen. Too often, such words from people of color evaporate into thin air. But not now. And, I pray, not ever again.At this crystallizing moment, we need to use our words wisely and well to drive lasting change. We must cherish our words as the markers of our freedoms, and restore their purpose when they are used to divide us in the name of political conquest.
On the other hand, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” is a malicious, bullying taunt that echoes back to racist policing tactics of the 1960s, yet now oozes, poisonously, from trigger-happy Twitter fingers. These are words at their worst: wielded and weaponized to threaten and intimidate.
Words are the cornerstones of our country and society. Our literal Declaration of Independence argued our case for fighting the Revolutionary War, and ultimately, for establishing these United States. The U.S. Constitution is our foundational governing document, encoding certain rights and freedoms into our national DNA. Upon taking office, federal officials—including presidents, members of Congress, and judges—must swear to protect and defend the Constitution. Members of our military take a similar oath. In doing so, they protect and defend the very essence of our country.
During World War II, Americans fought and died to defend not just our broader ideals, but also “The Four Freedoms” as defined by President Roosevelt in a 1941 speech: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. They were depicted in a set of Norman Rockwell paintings that toured the country, during which they were seen by more than a million people who purchased over $130 million in war bonds and stamps to support the war effort. At the time, almost every American could recite the Four Freedoms without prompting; many hung prints of the Rockwell paintings in their homes. These were the words that mattered in the darkest of hours.
In our time, “Black Lives Matter” is an equally powerful statement. And until the meaning of these words sinks into our national bone marrow—until they are as inherently a part of our common cause as our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—these words must remain on our lips as we protest, in our thoughts as we write, and in our hearts as we act.
Words carry the weight of our society on their shoulders. They are our way forward when people chant together in peaceful protest, and when they whisper in fear, alone in the dark. Words have the power to embody our shared and individual voices. And those voices, rising up, may once again spur action that changes the world.
Now, more than ever, we must choose our words wisely and use them well, for they will hang in the air long after we are gone.