One of the more complex phrases I like to think about is, “Words can only hurt you if you let them”.
There is a lot in this single phrase, and the more I thought about it, the more I wasn’t certain if the phrase was contradictory, deep in its understanding of human natures, or willfully blind to the humanity that birthed that phrase.
The first thoughts I had on this were that, well of course (in a more suprised kind of way, rather than condescending), words themeslves only have the meaning that I ascribe to them, the value that I place on them. They hurt me because I give them weight that says they should hurt, and are more hurtful if I weight them particularly high.
I ascribe words certain weight because society says they are supposed to have that weight, and I can only interact with society through a mutual understanding of words. Being called fat or ugly or dumb is “society” saying you are that definition, that you are those things, and society weights those things negatively. You are supposed to feel bad, because those words are reserved for negative people.
But of course, words themselves are an individual expression, and just because society at large gives weights to words, the individual can weight them more heavily through their particular use, and individuals who receive words may have unique associations with them, or perhaps struggled with what words they would describe themselves.
Because, people can only interact with others through words, not ideas directly. They must decide how the other person will receive a particular word and how they themselves view a word. What would clearly be a joke between friends, could be highly insulting to a stranger, or damaging to a vulnerable individual. This difference in how a word is perceived is complex, but that is because ideas get wrapped up into words, and sometimes ideas we never knew could be wrapped in a word are how the receiving party perceives it.
And this is where the crux of the complexity comes from. One cannot know how another might receive a particular word, or how it might affect them. For all your best intentions of what a word is supposed to mean, you can’t seriously expect another to always interpret it precisely the way you want, or the way “society” should want a word to be received.
Because society’s definition crudely covers the basic idea of a word, not the full range of ideas that a word can express. This is obvious in how people use words to mean all kinds of things. They are supposed to be flexible enough to cover any idea one could express; naturally they have more than one meaning.
But this doesn’t cover the other half. You can still choose to reject that person’s choice of words, as not descriptive of you, or the other ideas you hold dear. So, why then, it this at all an issue?
If words can be dismissed as carrying no weight, no meaning, then why bother talking? If you aren’t trying to illicit a particular emotional feeling, or idea, in someone, why bother using words you know will likely harm another, if they aren’t supposed to feel the word? If the expectation is they shouldn’t be “too offended”, then what, exactly, are you trying to express? It is somewhat contradictory, right? You can’t own the sole expression and monopolize a word for a particular idea. Lives exist around words, they are intricately linked, and some people are inescapably tied to words.
Further, if I always reject words used against me as meaningless, how can I interact with anyone? How can I feel someone’s gratitude, their comraderie, or their love? Should I only choose to feel “good” words? Should I then always ignore all the “bad” words because someone might choose to carelessly or offensively use one? How might I know someone’s use of a word was true or not, without first deeply questioning myself and my place with respect to that word, and in society at large?
To say they have no meaning, or to authoritatively state they have a different meaning than some people might identify so closely as, is to deny that person self-agency and to deny them themselves. I don’t think I am ugly, but if you call me that and you try to make me feel ugly, but without “meaning it in such a way that I should be so hurt about it”, then that means I have to reject the particular notion of why I think I am not ugly. I now must rebuild my understanding of “ugly” in to one that is self-consistent with how it is supposed to make me feel as another used it, and how I also think I want to feel with regards to how I understand things around me.
If I am not supposed to feel as hurt as I do, only a little, then that fundamentally must change who I am. I am defined by the words as I understand them. I must now reunderstand the world in totally different way, and in the process changing myself, and perhaps even the very “essence” that I am, to suit the particular uses of words, as I have no other means of interacting with other people and no other way of understanding my ideas and self.
Change is always painful, always difficult, always a struggle. And if I must change who I am, how I identify myself through words, and how I perceive the world to suit your careless use of a word, or a particularly harmful use of one, then does it not stand to reason that that change will hurt me?
Words can hurt you, because words are meant to change you. They are meant to infuse within you new ideas, new understandings, and new reflections upon the self. To deny that words can never be so hurtful, or to carelessly state they only hurt if you let them, is to reject the fundamental premise of language and how it operates upon humanity. It is to reject the notion that words should have flexible values of meaning and reception, and to forever crystalize a word as a particular idea, beyond the understanding and appreciation of others.
Words can hurt you, for better and worse, and sometimes they hurt in a way that is beyond your control or understanding. You should always leave yourself vulnerable to the meaning of words, because that is the only way for your “self” to feel others, in the same way that your physical senses can sometimes be hurt while feeling the world around them. Without “bad” feelings, we can’t have “good” feelings.