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Words, Semantics, and the Power Behind Them

March 9, 2011

Though my teachers and professors have kept repeating the same mantra over and over again throughout my years in school, the phrase, “Choose your words wisely” never ingrained themselves in my brain. Although the Polish writer Stanisław Wyspianski continuously reiterated the fact that words are just words, “słowa, słowa, słowa” (The Wedding), and do nothing, after reading Malcolm X’s speech my attitude towards words has also changed, from the indifference towards to seeing the value of, words. What got to me wasn’t the eloquence of the words he strung together or the juxtaposition of the ballot and the bullet but rather the part in his speech where he said the fight for equality should not be one of civil rights but one of human rights. I rarely if ever have gotten excited or really stopped to think about a text, the moment right after I read it, but this excerpt on the difference between two measly words and how one was a domestic issue and the other involved the universality of human morals, somehow hit me like a ten-ton train.

I wondered how words, things that aren’t even concrete, things that are just human creations and can’t even exist on their own, have so much influence on our lives. I also questioned the validity of X’s statement, whether changing one word could cause an entire human race as opposed to the citizens of one country to unite for a common cause and I realized that what X was saying had not only merit but held weight. Words have always influenced our perception of what something is. Everyone likes to bring up the word “terrorist” as a prime example of connotations. Does the word terrorist invoke a sense of dread and fear that some hidden enclave of enemy combatants will bomb a major city, perhaps the one we live in or does it inspire pride in one’s country and one’s patriotic desire to break away from the despotic imperialists that wish to mine it dry for resources whether human or raw materials.

The same could be used for the words “civil” and “human”. Civil brings to me a sense of peace and boredom as well as a feeling of “your problem, not mine”. Civil means peaceful or without barbarity, to resolve something in a manner inciting no violence, at least for me though I feel civil has essential the same connotation for everyone. Certain words seem to be universal words that everyone, regardless of nationality or culture understand as one thing. For example, the word “sunny” means in all cultures that the sun is unhindered by clouds. When the word “civil” is joined with the word “right”, I feel as though the rights are not of paramount importance, because they are just “civil” rights as X states. The word civil itself, doesn’t inspire or invoke feelings either way. No one is afraid of losing their “civil rights” or fighting to the death for them. The writers of the Declaration of Independence didn’t include civil rights nor did many other writers who wrote about the rights all men should have.

Rather, the people who wrote pages upon pages talked about “unalienable”, “God-given”, “universal”, “human”, rights, rights which were backed up by powerful adjectives that inspired the masses and invoked fear into the despots who prevented these rights from being dispersed to the people. This is where the intricacy of language, I think comes into play and gives X’s statement more weight. I think if what we had been fighting for was not the Black Civil Rights Movement, but rather the African American stride for human rights from an unjust regime, many more people not only in America but in the rest of the word would have seen the hypocrisy of American equality under the eyes of God. I feel not only would there be massive support, but creating an image of America as one of the monsters it tries to fight against, would incite an uneasiness into our leaders creating change more rapidly than we actually have.

I feel that words have been and can always be used as a tool for change because they are what represent the emotions we have. Certain words inspire certain emotions in us, not only persuading us but energize us or deplete us. Thus, as history has shown, words can act as a catalyst for change but only if we use words correctly. The gay rights movement, which has been linked by many historians as the modern civil rights movement, should not be called the gay rights movement according the Malcolm X, but rather a movement promoting Human Rights for gays because they lack it. The connotation should not be that these rights are “gay” rights, but that these rights are universal rights and that gays should be given these rights because everyone else has been.

Though I can go on about the impact of words, not only in media and literature, but in societal constructs and the way we think, I want to leave you with a burning question that still resounds in my mind. If we had called the Civil Rights Movement, a Human Rights Movement for African Americans, do you think we would have had more drastic change or do you think everything would have remained at a similar pace to what history showed us?

  1. AlexKasnetz... permalink
    March 9, 2011 9:28 PM

    Personally, I love the premise of this post. I am one who has always believed in the significance and impact of words, semantics, and speech. As you observe, the founding documents and the great speeches of history and politics are accompanied with powerful adjetives. I believe the gift for words is not only common but essential for great leadership. Think about the great leaders of our time, those who are remembered as significantly impacting the arc of history. Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, Reagan, and Obama, all of these people are bound together by the fact that their words inspire others and, in many cases, inspire posterity. I agree with you. Whether we realize it or not, the choice and presentation of words impacts history.

  2. Shane Malone permalink
    March 9, 2011 10:52 PM

    I agree with what you have to say about the importance of words. To answer the question that you ask at the end of your post, I do believe that there would have been a change in the pace that African Americans got equal rights. Like you said in your post about the difference between the word “civil” and the word “human”, to me “human” encompasses everyone into one group. I feel that if the movement had indeed been named “Human Rights Movement for African Americans” then people would have felt more connected to one another and seen that we are all humans and we all deserve the same rights. This would have then sped up the process in which equal rights were given to African Americans.

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