“Words Can Never Hurt Us”? Our Selectivity with When Words Matter

“Words Can Never Hurt Us”? Our Selectivity with When Words Matter January 19, 2020

Daniel Sandvik, Unsplash.com, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with a game. Quick! What do all of the following have in common:

  • A person stands in a packed, ill-lit theatre and screams “He’s got a gun!”
  • Your boss comes in, and tells you, “You’re fired.”
  • Your life partner announces “I don’t love you anymore, and quite frankly I never did.”
  • You’re starting your time on a jury for a violent crime, and a fellow juror says to you, “Oh, the defendant is black? Well, this’ll be a no-brainer.”
  • You’re leaving your child in daycare for the first time, and the worker tells you “Don’t worry, she’ll see the back of my hand if she steps out of line.”
  • Your country’s highest elected official comes on national TV and says “We’re going to start following Biblical law again, and purge our land of every pestilence.”
  • A friend steals from you and mocks you behind your back, and when you confront them they look you dead in the eye and say, “I’m not sorry for one bit of it.”

You get the idea.

So, no, this isn’t going to be an essay wavering on whether or not words can hurt us. Of course they can! Of course they do.

This is, rather, an essay about our selectivity when choosing when to believe that words hurt. And relatedly, when to believe when others tell us that words have hurt them.

This is about the blinders we put on when we could be building empathy instead.

Yes, The Clarkesworld Thing

In my last essay, I outlined what had happened in my SF&F community this past week. The startling thing for me, though, was discovering how many people outside SF&F already knew about it. Why? Because some people in my life follow news sources that like to focus on what they regard as “non-issues” “blown up” for “PC reasons.”

And there sure as heck is a simplistic gloss that you could lay over this recent SF&F issue to reinforce said narrative: 1) Someone published something. 2) People got “offended.” 3) The story was down. Censorship! Leftist fragility! Snowflakes!

But implicit in that easy narrative, which some sites and commentators impose over seemingly every political and artistic controversy to come their way to affirm that the “Left” is just as authoritarian and tribalist as the “Right,” is the automatic assumption that the thing in question–the story, the statement–could not actually do harm. That it’s always impossible for words to hurt people unless people want to be hurt by them.

How would such people reconcile the differences between the examples I gave above, and the ones you find in, say, a story with a transphobic title?

Actions Hurt, Not Words?

Well, they might say, if my boss tells me I’m fired, there is a clear set of actions I know will follow. It’s not the words themselves that cause me to be hurt; it’s the knowledge, embedded in them, of what comes next.

Likewise, if someone shouts “He’s got a gun!” in a theatre, there’s a good chance of immediate, stampeding consequences. And am I really going to leave my toddler with someone who promised to strike her if she stepped out of line?

Others on this list are a bit more nebulous. Are you hurt by a juror essentially telling you they’re racist? Well, some might say they’re “hurt” by the burden then imposed on them, to have to go to the foreman and report. Others might say that they’re hurt by the reminder of racism’s presence in this judicial system–that their confidence in the process has been shattered, because if one juror’s willing to admit their racism openly… how many others on the jury will just be hiding it better? How much of a kangaroo court are you participating in? Others still might be doing some serious internal questioning: What in blazes about me and my behaviour gave that juror to think that would be sympathetic to their racism?

Likewise, as awful as it is to hear your partner try to erase a lifetime’s perceptions of your relationship, and to strike out the rest of your life together, some might say that they’re grateful for the honesty. Glad to know it, you might say, because that stops me from living a lie, and gives me a chance to make other choices for the future.

If you have the financial means and good health to follow through on that, of course.

But even if you’re the most optimistic person about your partner’s repudiation of a lifetime… you’re still compelled to act in the wake of someone else’s words.

There are, that is, significant real-world consequences to what we say. And smart cookies that we are, we recognize those ensuing consequences in the words themselves.

Art as a Suspension of Those Rules?

Where these commentators slip up is in then arguing that the same consequences are not clearly evident in the written word. Which is, well… a bit inane, as blinders goes… because we have hate-speech legislation and libel laws for solidly evidenced reasons. We know written words can have an impact: Libel can ruin a person’s reputation or destroy a business. Hate speech can lead to an uptick in hate crimes, up to and including genocide.

To which they might then argue, in the political realm–oh, but he’s not serious about X and Y. He’s just saying it on the campaign trail.

Or, in the artistic realm–oh, but it’s just a metaphor; you can’t say for sure that the author’s trying to incite hate crimes, or that any hate crimes that follow the publication of this text, irrespective of authorial intent, are the text’s fault!

And I have to say, fellow atheists… we are amazing at this cognitive dissonance, because plenty of us will on the one hand point to chapter and verse in the Christian Bible or Qur’an to show how dangerous it is… and then, in other realms, insist that people are engaging in virtue-signalling witchhunts when they call to task someone’s writings on gender, ethnicity, nationalism, and similar issues involving marginalized people.

Which is it? Is text dangerous or isn’t it? Should a text be removed from popular culture if it has awful morality (as many atheists feel about religious texts), or shouldn’t it?

Guilt By Association?

Now, it must be pointed out that, for said commentators, one of the less ridiculous issues underlying their mockery of people’s alarm and trauma in the face of a given document is the fear that one will be pilloried for saying anything in support of it.

That is, after all, what some feel happened within the trans community (a huge, diverse range of dissenting voices, like every other community on Earth!) in relation to the recent issue in SF&F. Yes, some cis persons were condemned for supporting the artistry of something that had traumatized some trans and non-binary persons–but other trans and non-binary persons, who’d seen themselves and their own experiences in the story, also felt pilloried for their views, and their truths. Their trauma came largely from their own community saying that their way of being trans/non-binary was “wrong.”

This possibility of being “silenced by a minority” is the fear that glib commentators on social issues tend to focus on.

It’s not that they really believe words don’t have power. Heck, if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be so upset that someone else articulated their own trauma. Rather, such commentators just don’t like what’s done with that power. They tend to be furious that one group of traumatized people ends up establishing a framework of response that seemingly “always” leads to the public elimination of a given work or person entirely.

So when both a minority within a minority AND a domineering majority express support for a given work while also fearing being pilloried by an actively traumatized minority for saying as much… what possible solutions for meaningful discourse exist?

…Solutions? Ugh.

I had the tremendous opportunity of outlining this SF&F situation and some possible restorative strategies for a major magazine, which I’ll link to here once it’s live.

But in this essay, there are two actionable take-aways I think we need to start working on yesterday if we’re to pursue more humanistic discourse and behaviours in the world.


We have to stop saying words don’t hurt. It’s not true, and we know it’s not true, because we don’t act like it’s true in the vast majority of situations in our lives. We know that words carry promises and consequences. We know they compel and inspire actions, often quite dangerous to ourselves and otehrs.

Our real issue is that some of those consequences–like the possibility of a text or person being eliminated from the public sphere if someone says that a given statement or action has hurt them–scare and frustrate many of us so much that we’d rather pretend no one was ever really hurt at all. We’d rather create whole new pundit spheres to reinforce our convictions that others are just making up their distress, rather than do the hard work of finding and habituating ways of mitigating a situation that has caused others harm, without “elimination of the source material” invariably being the answer.



We have to stop treating individuals in communities as monoliths.

No one person speaks for all.

That’s a really tough thing to make actionable, though, because even as individuals dissent, we all dissent from different levels of communally sourced power.

Take, for instance, one of the ongoing fallouts from the SF&F situation. There’s a thread of discourse that attributes all this trauma to The Cis (a glibly chosen expression conveying a lot of frustration for how trans and non-binary persons experience more trauma and less social security under assertions from dominant gender-types about what gender is and should be).

This thread of discourse argues that, while The Cis who wanted this story to stay up as “art” were clearly overriding trans discourse, so too were The Cis who advocated for the story to come down.

Why? Because whatever The Cis say still has far more social sway. Their dissent or support, some trans/NB persons argue, comes more institutionally supported platforms. As such, real allyship would only come from The Cis not saying anything at all, and expressly leaving it to trans and non-binary persons to decide on a solution.

(The trouble with this, I must point out from my non-binary position, is that many cis persons were also hurt by this story’s representations of womanhood. There was a strong thread of criticism that suggested the work’s understanding of womanhood was insulting, obtuse, and destructive. Heck, I too first read the story as far more in the cis-wheelhouse re: a cis woman struggling with her womanhood rather than a trans woman, even with the blatantly anti-trans title. Do cis women not have gender identities, too? Isn’t a whole part of trans/NB activism engaged in making it clear that we all occupy different positions along a spectrum? So is there any way to keep dominant-culture voices from drowning out the rest, without also diminishing the site of anyone else’s trauma?)

This second actionable item is kind of a twofer, then, because the best way to allow individual voices to be regarded as just that is to dismantle the heft of social platforms skewing the safety of and focus on one community over another.

“But that’s what we’ve been saying!” many dominant-culture critics of minority-culture discourse might protest: “Stop seeing the problem as ‘The Patriarchy!’ or ‘The West!’ or ‘The Whites!’ I’m a person first, damn it, and I just want to go about the world seeing persons first in everyone around me!”

And I’m sure you do. Right between posting another sniggering link about “The Left Gone Crazy” or “Feminism Gone Too Far” or “SJWs be cray-cray!”

Now, I’m not saying there isn’t a grain of truth in criticism of occasions when individuals from dominant-culture positions have been made to stand in for the culture on whole, exactly the way marginalized persons hate for themselves–only, with fewer fears for one’s life and well-being in the process.

What I’m saying is: If that’s genuinely the world you want to see–the one where we’re all persons first–then act like it. Not just in your day-to-day interactions, but in seeking out a fuller range of dissenting discourse to consume. In choosing not to play into sites that take cynicism and derision as their foremost reactions to news from other discourse communities and advocacy spheres.)

In other words, if we want individual statements to stop having such dramatic social consequences for how and what we read… we have a long road ahead of us.

That journey starts, though, with something pretty simple: with refusing to treat a multiplicity of voices in other communities as a sign of disorganization, of a “snake eating its own tail.” With instead seeing that multiplicity of dissenting voices as a sign of a thriving discourse, with plenty of competing perspectives.

Then try to quiet all your knee-jerk first responses. Listen in.

And let as many people as possible get a word in edge-wise before drawing conclusions.

Sure, it might hurt a bit–but that’s just because words do. It’s what we do with that hurt, even as we’re telling others what to do with theirs, that will then speak volumes.

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  • Person223

    In none of those cases is it the words that actually hurt. Think about it.

  • That is precisely what I said in the essay. It’s the consequences we anticipate when we hear the words themselves. Did you read the essay or just leap from the opening list to the comments section?

  • Jim Baerg

    Other words that hurt certain people.
    “In the US Civil War the south was fighting to keep slavery (& otherwise oppress blacks)”
    “In the 1930s & 40s the Japanese army committed atrocities against the people of the countries it was occupying”
    or closer to home for you & I.
    “The residential school system run by the Canadian government greatly harmed the native children in them”

  • Great, great point. The reasons we’re hurt come next. Just as the aforementioned glib commentators are clearly hurt by someone else saying that something’s hurt them (because the commentators are anticipating the consequence of maybe being censored themselves), so too are plenty of people who do not want to acknowledge certain facets of brutal history. It’s *all* hurt, *all* fear of the consequences that will follow acknowledging that damage was done.

    And I 100% believe that when we name oppressive history for what it is, we can better address those knee-jerk fears of what will happen to us–to our livelihoods, to our prospects, to our “right” to celebrate our countries and our heroes–*if* we acknowledge it as hurt, too.

    I won’t “pick sides” on this one. We are emotional beings and, across the board, we need to own up to all our reactions to words as being emotionally moored. Just as the endgame shouldn’t always be elimination of a source text or person, so too shouldn’t it be erasure of real history… but we can only get to those more deeply constructive responses to pain once we realize pain is there.

    Thanks, Jim. THIS is useful nuance!

  • Grimlock

    Clearly, words can hurt. What I find to be a more tricky area to navigate personally is when someone is morally responsible for the hurt caused by their words.

    The hurt caused by words is often, or perhaps always, due to the context of the receiver, or the receiver’s background knowledge. In some cases, such as the examples mentioned above, the person expressing the words would have a reasonable expectation of the words probably causing pain. Expecting them to cause pain does not require anything but very common pieces of information.

    In other cases things get a bit messy.

    On the other hand, perhaps placing blame is not the most constructive thing to do.

    A bit of a tangent, but…

    And I have to say, fellow atheists… we are amazing at this cognitive dissonance, because plenty of us will on the one hand point to chapter and verse in the Christian Bible or Qur’an to show how dangerous it is… and then, in other realms, insist that people are engaging in virtue-signalling witchhunts when they call to task someone’s writings on gender, ethnicity, nationalism, and similar issues involving marginalized people.

    On the topic of cognitive dissonance, both pointing to horrible verses and criticising virtue signaling can be motivated by a desire to, well, signal virtue.

  • “Your life partner announces ‘I don’t love you anymore, and quite frankly I never did.'”

    My wife said this to me. Twice actually, about a year apart (sometime around 1989/1990/1991 — hard to remember exactly), and both times I was totally unprepared. The scenario was that I was sitting there on the couch watching our two little kids play, and I was thinking about how perfect life was. She sat down next to me, and I expressed this thought. She got a shocked look on her face and replied “we need to talk”. That was followed by “I don’t love you, and I’m not sure I ever did.” We’d been married almost 10 years by then. And then there was a literal déjà vu moment about a year later and I felt very foolish on top of the other associated emotions. (Thirty years later, we’re still married somehow.)

    Are you going to tell me that the words themselves didn’t hurt? How so? Because there was no physical injury? Or maybe because it was the meaning of the words, not the vibrations passing between her mouth and my ears? Your assertion does not make sense. Words convey thoughts which can cause emotional distress, aka “hurt.” You say “think about it” as if you have an obvious point, but I’m not sure you even have a valid point.

  • “As such, allyship would only come from The Cis not saying
    anything at all, and expressly leaving it to trans and non-binary
    persons to decide on a solution.”

    Pretty much why I didn’t reply to your last post. While I felt enlightened by reading it, it simply was not a conversation I felt I could add to or even had a place trying to contribute to. My takeaway here is that we need to put ourselves in others’ shoes as much as possible, but when it isn’t possible, we need to still realize that the shoes are real. If I say something in a way that hurts someone, I need to try my best to understand why. If I really, truly can’t understand why, I still need to say it better or un-say it (take down the post and apologize, or whatever is appropriate)

    Thanks for posting, Margaret.

  • guerillasurgeon

    I had no idea that maybe some people think words don’t hurt. I always thought it was a case of grow a thicker skin nor get over it or something. But words can definitely hurt, and I have a number of personal experiences of being hurt by words. Even if some of them are true, you can actually be hurt by them, although I tend to give people a Mulligan on truth – although what’s touted as truth is often merely opinion. But when See Noevo over on the Tippling Philosopher told me I was incapable of mourning my dead son because I was an atheist – it hurt – and of course it was intended to hurt I suspect although some people think that the “truth” should be told anyway. Some people are so confident in their opinions that their opinions count as truth. In which case they can say what they like I guess. Net Nanny strikes again I will edit one time.

  • Sorry for the duplicate comment caused by the Net Nanny, guerillasurgeon. If it makes you feel any better, it blocked one of my replies for an inane reason, too. And I’m the effin’ mod! I really don’t understand that system. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I was astonished to see how many “Words can’t hurt”-niks came out in the wake of this, too… until I realized, ah, wait, they *do* know words can hurt. That’s why they’re going out of their way to try to provoke others WITH the words “Words can’t hurt.” Trollception at its best!

  • Thanks so much for reading and listening, Lerk! The world’s an intricate place. I’m now old enough to have essentially two waves of young’uns coming up behind me–each with its own vernacular and distinct vantage points about the state of the discourse in the world. I sorely hope for the wisdom to be able to read, listen, and adapt in the wake of whatever hurt they make me aware that I’ve been a part of, too. In the meantime, good to have examples of that patience and commitment to lifelong learning in ever-striving folks like you. 🙂 Warmest wishes.

  • Interestingly, I shared your opening examples with a very libertarian friend & he didn’t think *any* of them were an issue!

  • Huh. I’m surprised that those words hurt anybody. I’m struggling to think of whom they might hurt…

  • Jim Baerg

    Just in case you weren’t being sarcastic:
    A lot of people were taught that the cause of the Confederacy or WWII Japan was good & none of the horrifically bad things about them were mentioned to them. They feel insulted when told that (some of) their ancestors did horrible things.