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The Power of Words

By Pharoah Sutton-Jackson, CSJ President

Sticks and stones...

So many of us were told as children the fabled mantra, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” We were given this principle in an attempt to make us thick-skinned. To prepare us to withstand teases, pranks, and insults from the playground bullies. To make us internalize that others’ opinions of us or their attempts to diminish us should not burden us too heavily, because the actual words can do us no harm. At almost 25 years old, as a Black almost-lawyer, I know that this is fundamentally not true.

This is not a new revelation; I’ve known this truth for most of my adult life, if not before that. Nor do I have the misperception that it is a novel concept. Most of us in our maturity can handle an innocuous barb about our appearance or capacities. Yet, we still find difficulty grappling with a parent or mentor telling us, “I’m disappointed in you.” We still feel the punch in the gut from reading “Thank you for applying, but at this time we’re moving forward with more qualified candidates.” Words can sting.

As I reflect on the first 2020 Presidential Debate, I am reminded that there are some that may still underestimate the power of words. For those that do, and for those that do not, it is crucial to consistently affirm that power—to recognize it and examine it. Words can do more than sting. They can pack more than a punch. They can cause serious harm.

Last night many people were preoccupied with the words “stand back and stand by,” and rightfully so. They posited that these words were the expression of a problematic disposition, and they criticized the use of these words for the virtue that they signaled. I was less concerned with what those words may explain about the person who used them. My attention was drawn to their immediate effectual power once they were deployed. I took note of how certain factions of our society felt recognized, emboldened, emblazoned, and affirmed, while others, in communities I belong to, felt threatened, endangered, targeted, and defensive. The power of words is dynamic and nuanced. A simple, short phrase can create divergent reactions, but a common understanding. Political speech typically operates in this way. However, these words brought about more than disagreement, more than digital bickering across platforms. They brought more than contentious debate of policy alternatives. When Black children across the country are inquiring to their parents whether or not their family should purchase weapons to protect themselves, and when those children have to move through life with that degree of anxiety and uncertainty, those words have caused serious, material harm. When words amount to misinformation, and create insecurity in vital institutions, resulting in over 200,000 deaths, those words have caused serious, material harm.

Again, this take is not something new, complex, or rarely discussed. Yet, as a law student, my perspective on this may be more unique, as I consistently reflect on the power of words in the written form, as well as the verbal. I contemplate the harm caused by the words of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. I ruminate over the harm caused by the words of the ‘94 Crime Bill, the oppressive power of student disciplinary codes, and the exclusionary effect of standardized tests and entrance exams. As I mull these things over, and brainstorm ways I can be an effective advocate and agent of change, I am constantly reminding myself of the duality of power itself. Just as words can bring about material harm, they can effectuate substantial good.

The words of a Toni Morrison poem can heal. The words of a Michel Eric Dyson book can educate. The words of a U.S. Supreme Court judicial opinion can protect women’s autonomy over their bodies, and individuals' right to love who they choose. The words of the Green New Deal can save the entire world.

That is why I’m writing this piece and why I helped create this blog. To use my words to speak to those who feel severely harmed by the words used by others, last night and beyond. I do not purport that my words may have any healing power at this moment. But I do hope that I am able to inspire others to use their words also. For those who have things to say, please consider our platform yours as well.

On June 4th, the Coalition for Social Justice said, “No More Talking….” Please do not misconstrue our sentiment as a devaluation of words and dialogue. We are future lawyers. We are advocates. Words are our weapon of choice, just as they are for those in opposition to justice. They have and will continue to use theirs—we must use ours.

So, we will continue to talk. We will continue to write. Continue to fight. As always, let’s get to work.

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