Words Matter

In the November issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Stephen Pinker, a professor at Harvard, write a surprisingly stupid article saying “that People believe, contrary to logic, that certain words can corrupt the moral order.” A professor of emeritus of English took issue with him in the current issue and his response only made it more evident that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I have therefore sent the following letter to the Atlantic. You can hold your breath and wait for it to be published – or not – later this year sometime or read it below:

I am surprised that someone who understands so little of the power of language should be writing columns for the Atlantic Monthly and teaching about it at Harvard. The November column struck me at the time as an example of confused thinking, but his response to the letters to the editor about that column makes it clear he doesn’t know what words can do.

Pinker refers to the “N” word without discussing it. It needs discussion if he is to understand. It is an infamous example of a word that expresses an attitude toward others that is destructive of civil relationships and can create trouble as surely as shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater. Don’t tell me that “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Words are weapons as surely as swords. They are intended to hurt, and they do.

The notion that words have power is, he tells us, a “quirk in our psychology” that has the ability to “activate primitive emotional circuits in the brain.” I wonder whether he doesn’t have that same quirk and whether organizing Harvard students to yell, “Pinker is a fool” at regular intervals would activate his circuits or not?

“Surely no one today,” he writes, “believes . . . that an eavesdropping God will punish anyone who impiously invokes him, or that hearing certain words will corrupt a child’s morals.” That misses the point. Using the name of God as freely as people do today, expresses an attitude toward God that is contagious. Where the Name is used irreverently, irreverence is promoted and spread. A society becomes irreligious as a result. That may be irrelevant to Pinker, but not to people of faith.

“Hearing certain words” will not, of itself, “corrupt a child’s morals,” true, but using those words will corrupt society. They change relationships. They tell others what kind of people we are. They signal that we are indifferent to the sensitivities of others, and that will ordinarily extend beyond words to actions. Controlling language by laws is a fruitless endeavor, but respecting the power of language shapes our world. The words we use, whether of race or religion or toilet or sex, tell other people who we are and what we think of them. Is that really of no importance?

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