Words Matter?

Words don’t grasp the truth firmly enough; they slip and slide around. — William Davies​

I grew up around books and languages. I’ve always had an unwavering belief in the power of words to clear up confusion and connect people in meaningful ways. Over the past few years — as I’ve starting taking writing a bit more seriously — those beliefs have only been strengthened as my editors have gently herded me into saying exactly what I mean.

Over time that belief evolved into something more. It became a cornerstone of who I am. I somehow convinced myself that this is how I could play a part in making the world a better place. If I could only show people how to use their words right, if I could just explain to them how easily the wrong tone can derail any meaningful discussion — if they could just see words the way I did… Then things would be okay.

Words became like math. An immovable science I could understand. Equations that could be balanced. A way for this introvert to bring order to a chaotic world. “Words matter”, I would murmur solemnly, almost certainly to silent eye-rolls around the dinner table.

Boy, was I wrong. Language simply doesn’t work that way. And I can’t believe it took me this long to figure it out.

A few weeks ago I got into an online discussion with a good friend about their words, while they were trying to tell me about a hurtful experience they had. Instead of hearing what he was trying to communicate (no, the irony didn’t escape me), I tried to convince him to be nicer, to use better tone, to use different words. It was the worst possibly way to handle the discussion.

The next morning I woke up — after apologizing to my friend — and I realized that something has changed in me. Something big.

I’ve lost my belief in words.

And then a William Davies paragraph about the rise of emoji, tucked away in a pretty weird article called Mark Zuckerberg and the End of Language, came back to me:

These strategies for circumventing language are examples of what the philosopher Slavoj Zizek has called the “crisis of symbolic efficiency.” Somehow, words no longer seem trustworthy or adequate as ways of representing experience. They don’t grasp the truth firmly enough; they slip and slide around. Best to find some more reliable way of communicating experiences between one brain to another.

This is how I feel now. I don’t trust words any more.

I used to believe if we could all agree on the meaning of a certain word, or the language we use when we argue, everything would be ok. I saw myself as a crusader for this cause, but it turns out I was just being condescending.

I used to believe in words. Now there’s a huge gap in my understanding of the world where that belief used to sit.

For now, I know I need to live with the emptiness a little bit longer. It’s uncomfortable, but I have to mourn first. For my naiveté, for my disillusionment, for the way I treated people unfairly because of that belief. But once that’s over, I hope to fill the void with something else that I’m now convinced is much more important than language: empathy.

I hope to grow strong in my ability to seek the meaning behind people’s words, as opposed to presumptuously telling them what their words mean. That’s where my energy has to go next.

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