The Power of Language

There has been a lot in the news this week regarding language. There was President Obama’s recent speech in Cairo, the offensive Sacramento radio show that Justin commented on yesterday, and Bill O’Reilly’s excoriating treatment of assassinated doctor, George Tiller. All of this has me thinking a lot about the power of language.

While some of the defense of the radio shock jocks have included protestations that “Come on, it’s only words,” the criticism of President Obama’s speech has also included, “Well we’ll see what happens, this is only words.” So, do words matter or not?

Unfortunately, those of us who have been the target of hateful speech clearly understand the power of language to harm and to sometimes set the stage for physical harm. Many people have drawn the connection between Bill O’Reilly’s comments about Dr. Tiller and his recent murder. And I can’t help but notice the unfortunate timing between the Sacramento radio host’s words and the recent report from the Triangle Foundation of the shooting of two transgender women near Detroit, MI.

But language can be a force for good as well. Like all power, it’s just a tool, like a wrench, that can be used to repair or harm depending upon who wields the tool. Politicians, like President Obama, understand the power of language to lay the foundation for future action. The words help to create a space to allow action to be even possible. Nadine Smith in her recent post on Bilerico encouraged us all to imagine what the world would be like without discrimination and then start acting as if it were true. Words do have power.

Furthermore, our laws are made of words, and while those words alone don’t make our lives different, they lay the groundwork for meaningful actions. Like the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act that many of you came to DC to lobby for in April. We all know that hate crimes will still happen even if this bill becomes a law. But the words create a path for action that our government can take in response to future hate crimes.

NCTE exists to end discrimination and violence against transgender people at the federal level. That’s a heavy task and, in order to be successful, we need real power to get it done. One aspect of our power is our ability to use language to be persuasive and one piece of evidence of our power is our ability to shape the language of America’s laws and policies.


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