Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
Throughout my early years, words did hurt me. Almost everyday, my first-grade tormentor would manage to critique the size of my forehead. I had never given much thought to this aspect of my appearance before then. Quite frankly, I never knew that there could be such a thing as an oversized forehead. But somehow, that single epithet was enough to reframe the way I saw myself. I would glance in the mirror, and my forehead was all I would see. A single word had the power to change the composition of my own reflection.
The other night, I was watching the presidential debate with my four roommates. I did not go into the debate with high expectations, so I was not surprised when it felt more like an SNL skit than a key moment in a high-stakes election. While there were many takeaways from the debate, what stood out most was the moment when Donald Trump was asked to openly condemn white supremacy. Not only did Trump maneuver around the question, but he instructed the Proud Boys (a white supremacist group) to “stand back and stand by.”
Moments after this remark was made, Merriam-Webster Dictionary tweeted, “‘Stand back’: to take a few steps backwards / ‘Stand by’: to be or to get ready to act.” Utilizing a strict dictionary definition, Merriam-Webster suggested that Trump was not only refusing to condemn white supremacists, but he was encouraging them to prepare for action.
However, not everyone seemed so eager to accept this definition. For instance, one individual pointed out that instructing someone to “stand by” is the same as telling them to be a “bystander.” Taking into account this definition, Trump was not encouraging action by white supremacists. Rather, he was instructing them to move to the sidelines.
Regardless of your interpretation of Trump’s remark, this debate brings up an important point: Words matter. These little bits of meaning have the ability to shape the lens through which we view political and social issues. And when used ambiguously, a single phrase such as “stand by” can lead to the coexistence of two separate and opposing realities.
Back in May, Trump published a tweet in which he referred to BLM protestors as “thugs.” Overlooking the fact that 93% of the protests in question have been peaceful, Trump equated those fighting for criminal justice reform with “violence” and “criminality.” His strategic word choice was able to shift the conversation away from the violence of systemic racism and toward the violence of the movement itself.
I became acutely aware of this impact when I helped plan a BLM protest at my high school. Although the protest remained peaceful in its entirety, my classmates and I returned home to see several threats of violence from adults on Facebook. Some people went so far as to claim that we were agents of Antifa coming to loot their homes. It was clear that we inflicted no harm — we had no reason to do so. But the conversation was warped nonetheless.
While we argued for justice for Breonna Taylor, the bystanders launched into a frenzy about how to protect their homes. We were not arguing the same issue; there was a sense of disconnect. Trump’s words held power, and they led a peaceful movement to be interpreted as a violent offense.
The divisive nature of language is not just limited to the issue of racism. Current political discourse has led us to believe that there is an antithetical relationship between “choice” and “life;” “inclusion” and “patriotism;” “religious tolerance” and “safety.” None of these words naturally exist in opposition, yet key rhetorical choices have led us to believe that they do. The asymmetrical nature of our political dialogue has led us to engage in fundamentally different conversations about the same issues.
Trump’s America is like my first grade self, hyper-focusing on a warped reflection of reality. While the power of rhetoric is nothing new, Donald Trump is unique in the fact that his rhetoric is particularly charged — and particularly harmful. He has not only reframed the narrative, but he has done so in a way that has upheld white supremacy and undermined the merits of racial equality. And while his use of the word “thug” is loud, his silence on the issue of white supremacy is louder.
I am quite convinced that sticks and stones won’t break America’s bones. Words, on the other hand, hold an undeniable power.