I started my career as a wordsmith and am winding down as I began. In between, I researched environmental impacts and taught English in China. I pay attention to words, scientific or literary — how they’re used, their multiple meanings, and what they’re intended to say. Literary scholars enjoy this last: “What did that author really mean?”
Last Wednesday’s Opinion page carried a practical demonstration of why words matter. It featured contrasting examples of venting “righteous” indignation. We all feel indignant occasionally, whether over injustices or just another Windows 10 update. How we deal with indignation says a lot about who we are and how we affect others.
Under the headline “It’s imperative to cancel the cancel culture,” one columnist branded such culture “formalized bullying,” designed by “the left” as their method to change the world. He excoriated Disney’s firing of a mixed martial arts champion who likened “American socialists” persecuting Republicans to Nazis persecuting Jews.
Merriam Webster describes cancel culture as “a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure,” resulting in “mass withdrawal of support from public figures or celebrities who have done things that aren’t socially accepted … ” Forbes says, “There is no single accepted definition of cancel culture, but at its worst, it is about unaccountable groups successfully applying pressure to punish someone for perceived wrong opinions.”
It’s hard to imagine an example more right-on than events at the Capitol on Jan. 6. A desperate man tried to cancel not only an election, monitored and certified more thoroughly than any in history, but also the U.S. Congress itself. Words, tweeted (what a charming, disarming verb!) by an erstwhile leader, whipped the mob into a frenzied attack that canceled at least five lives.
A stark contrast
In the second column, “Righteous indignation does more harm than good,” Jade Stellmon shares a different option for handling perceived injustices. Her introspection encapsulates emotional conflicts most of us feel when confronted with difficult personal decisions. The cogent, contemplative self-analysis of her instincts and emotions describes how she dealt with anger at what she believed was unjust prioritization of COVID-19 vaccinations. More important is how she dealt with the issue.
Stellmon vented her indignation to friends, she said, thinking it would do no harm to share her frustrations. “I figured my outburst accomplished very little besides making me feel better,” she wrote. “It was much too late that I learned it actually did quite a lot — all of it harmful.”
Her friends “left that conversation believing that they and their loved ones weren’t deserving of the vaccine — or at least wouldn’t be for a long, long time,” she explained. Months later, “some hid the fact that they had received it. Instead of being vocal advocates … potentially influencing others … on the fence to get this miraculous vaccine,” she wrote. “They were silent, closeted. Because of me.” She further blames herself for other issues, real and potential.
I admire Stellmon’s forthrightness and her ability to describe her experience so clearly. Words matter. They shape the zero-sum society we inhabit. Words drive our compulsion to win, whether arguments or wars. Competition trumps cooperation.
Society grows and develops only through cooperation. History illustrates this. The failed League of Nations following WWI birthed the United Nations. With all its imperfections, the UN has enabled much of the world to cooperate in ways undreamed of when it was founded. Global statistics attest that we live in a better world because of the UN, even while much room for improvement remains.
It’s easy to criticize, to lob negativity into a situation, to create labels and assign blame. It’s easy and often destructive to stir controversy. But constructive criticism that offers positive solutions is appropriate as we examine failures with an eye to correcting them and avoiding future failures.
Our one world — our single civilization — demands cooperation. Injustices drive refugees across political borders. Humans flee for their lives. Climate change and pandemics don’t recognize those borders. Global solutions require many languages. How we use those languages affects others. It requires restraint in our rhetoric and careful, thoughtful, honest discourse based on facts.
Whether in English or any other language, our words do matter.