“It’s just words,” Donald Trump said at the second presidential debate in St. Louis last night.
But it is never “just words.”
The most recent proof of this is the 2016 campaign itself, where words have been used to shock, to push boundaries, to clarify and obscure — to demean, humiliate and mock. If they were “just words,” we wouldn’t have been talking about these particular words all weekend, and other words before them for more than a year.
True, every word starts as but a sound to which we give meaning, a jumble of letters that we imbue with weight and purpose. But from the earliest origins of speech we have known that these strings of noise are potent. From the time we tell our children to use theirs, we understand that choosing them well makes all the difference.
“For your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” reads Matthew 12:36-38.
“Words are loaded pistols,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre.
“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind,” Rudyard Kipling said.
And, of course, Donald Trump: “I know words, I have the best words.”
This campaign has been filled with many that are not the best. On social media, Trump supporters are increasingly emboldened to use words that are historically out of bounds – c***, and k***, n***** and variations thereof — doing so because they are not “just words,” but are weapons.
At Trump rallies, T-shirts are worn, sometimes by children, calling Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton a “bitch” and worse. The glee with which all this is done — the chortling pride in the shock value, is the best evidence that words always matter.
If words didn’t matter, we wouldn’t be arguing over whether the slogan should be “Black Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter.”
If words didn’t matter, Trump would not spend so much time insisting that Clinton use the words “radical Islamic terrorism.”
If words didn’t matter, there would be no uproar over Clinton’s use of the word “deplorable.”
If words didn’t matter, there would not be so much parsing of Paul Ryan’s admonition that women were to be “championed” and “revered” — was that strong support or patronizing pap? Nor would we be noting the difference between Melania Trump saying she found her husband’s words on the bus “offensive,” but not the actions described by those words.
Which brings us back to Trump on that bus talking to Billy Bush on a hot mic about grabbing women by their intimate parts without asking. Just boys being boys, he describes it. “It’s just words.”
Let’s accept for the sake of argument that lots of men really do brag about assaulting women when women aren’t around. That they often say things like “I don’t even wait. … When you’re a star, they let you do it. Grab them by the p****. You can do anything.” I don’t believe it’s true that most men talk like that, but even if it is, that kind of talk is still more than “just words.” These are words that demean. Words that reveal a worldview. Tellingly, they are a category of words that only exist to describe women — there are no equally vile ways to describe men in the English language, except perhaps ones that imply they are gay, which also shows how words can teach you about a culture.
Linguistic history is the measure of why we change our words and what the evolution reflects about a society. “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms,” Socrates wrote, and we keep redefining ours. The way forbidden words become common, or don’t, is a measure of the transformation of cultural norms. (Lately it’s become popular to refer to all this as “political correctness” — another multilayered word — but really it’s an ongoing social refining of communication so that it more precisely reflects polite and accepted meaning.)
Some go from accepted to not: “Negro” giving way to “black” giving way to “African-American,” in a continuing effort to jettison the racist connotations that surround the words and replace that baggage with with an empowered fresh start. Similarly, the fight by disability advocates to shun the word “retarded,” once a medical term but now understood as a slur.
Others go from unacceptable to everyday. We can now say “pregnant” on television, though Lucille Ball was “with child.” We now write “cancer” matter of factly in obituaries, though for years the word was rarely said aloud. And insisting that “AIDS” was spoken by a president after years of refusal to say the word was seen as a dramatic victory.
So it’s not like the American electorate has never heard a curse word before this election. Over the decades, our language has certainly become less formal (note the candidates calling each other by their first names, although Donald does seem to chafe at not being called “Mr. Trump”). In the same period of time, language has also become more crude. It is practically the job of each generation to shock the one before (just ask Tipper Gore about her crusade against vulgar lyrics in popular music). But while our forebears knew how to throw insults around (Teddy Roosevelt called Woodrow Wilson “that Byzantine logothete, supported by all the flubdubs, mollycoddle and flapdoodle pacifists”), they could not begin to navigate the many bridges crossed in the past two years alone.
One measure of that distance:
Before Nixon allowed the release of a transcript of the Watergate tapes he ordered all the curse words — including ones like “Christ” and “hell” to be removed and replaced with the words “expletive deleted.”
Then see the Starr report, compiled during the Clinton impeachment investigation. (Speaking of the power of words, Clinton knew it well, famously protesting during a deposition that his answer to a question “depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”) There was hand-wringing and consternation when the statement “The president did not ejaculate” appeared on the front page of the New York Times, quoting from the report.
Other words — i.e. Monica Lewinsky saying of the president “he helped f*** up my life,” were buried inside. Legendary Times editor Abe Rosenthal, who was no longer in that job during the Clinton administration, had once said that the word f*** would only appear in his paper “if the president of the United States says it on the floor of Congress,” but that standard fell with the Lewinsky scandal. And now the word has appeared on the front page, because a presidential candidate used it. “I moved on her like a bitch,” the newspaper quoted him as saying. “I did try and f*** her.”
Far more telling than Trump’s use of the word, though, was his attempt to dismiss it. “It’s just words,” he said.
No. It’s “just” an ease with and a pride in a vocabulary that exists to dismiss and denigrate women. Explaining it away as “just words” when you call women fat or ugly; or when you send notes to a New York Times reporter telling her she has the “face of a dog”; or when you attack a breast-feeding lawyer as “disgusting”; or tweet “If Hillary can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America” — each of these gives permission to those who have taken increasing delight in using such words in this political go-round.
Words are never merely words. They are always a reflection of where a culture stands. And of what we as a society are willing to think, say and hear.