Can Language Kill?

What do you charge someone with when the words that they use become deadly weapons? Every day, I see people in power use words as deadly weapons. I do not think our legal structure has the proper tools to handle those who would use words weapons of mass destruction.

When I was a little girl, we learned a jingle. It went like this: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Growing up in the Pine Belt, in a world of Black lumberjacks, veterans, construction workers, and yeoman farmers, we were expected to be emotionally and physically tough. A smart mouth was treasured. Not only was sarcasm expected, it was encouraged. As children, we picked up on the rough, tough threats of the masculine culture that informed the area and most of us, girls and boys, could write checks with our mouths that our behinds could cash!

Well, most of us…As a child who loved language, believe it or not, I never could. I was the one oddball out of the bunch who, though she showed up to school reading in the early 1980s, could not turn a phrase quickly. I would stand there dumbfounded while children who were more quick-witted talked about my Momma, my daddy, my clothes, my big soup-cooling lips, my egg-bottom shoes, my nappy-ass hair, my cheap clothes, and my u-g-l-y-you-ain’t-got-no-alibi-face and become overwhelmed with insults. And I was never a fighter. Me, fight? I’d rather share my chocolate chip cookies and give you a kiss. Instead, I’d stand there with a hard lump in my throat wondering why I was being attacked so vehemently. People tried to make me fight and I wouldn’t. People tried to make me play the dozens and I wouldn’t. Why? What was the point of it? I didn’t care about what somebody else’s momma looked like or who she slept with. It wasn’t any of my concern. Adults lived in a separate, beautiful world of Aretha Franklin and Betty Wright. They played the Blues, smoked cigarettes, and told dirty jokes while they sang songs that they all knew. I couldn’t wait until my man broke my heart so I could laugh about it with my friends while I changed the baby’s behind in my lap and talked about it with my friends. Then they shouted in church on Sunday while all of their friends fanned them, knowing a pain that they all knew, asking God to “have mercy, Lord.” That was what adulthood, womanhood was to me.

In all of my school days, had one fight and it wasn’t a fight at all. A girl pulled my hair and I put her in the garbage can. Even then, she allowed another girl to push her up to it and to this day, I hate the instigator more than the perpetrator. And though it was almost 30 years ago, the instigator better stay clear of me. I still hate her.

With no snappy comebacks and no hard fists, I became an embarrassment! It was said, in front of my face, mind you, that I had plenty of book sense and no common sense at all. It was a joke to some of my extended family that I was not my mother’s child at all. I had to be adopted. My mother was not known for her quick wit. Actually, my mother is extremely shy. To this day, she is an introvert who does not need to leave her home for more than two weeks at a time. But the woman has fists like frozen turkeys and she has been known to use them!

From my childhood, I can tell you that sticks and stones may break bones, but words can and do kill. Words linger. Language matters. Language is more than a matter of schoolyard bullying. Language is a matter of national security. Every day, I witness people in the halls of power take language and use it to perform multiple assaults with deadly weapons on our collective democracy. And since our legal system has no tool to deal with language as a weapon, it goes unprosecuted, even in the court of public opinion. We are a country that collectively lacks the critical thinking skills that would prosecute the perpetrator, so they continue to use language against us. Language assaults us. Language imprisons us. Language is killing us. This homicidal language is then monetized where its users can use the profits as fuel to spread its killing message to reach an even wider audience. Let me give you a few examples here.

Let me just say here, for transparency’s sake, that I am not a Democrat. I am not a Repuplican. I am not a Liberal. I am not a Conservative. I have given to Democratic candidates. But I also teach Burke in my classes.

  1. ) I was riding in my car one day, and I saw several bumper stickers that read, “I stand for the flag and kneel for the cross.” I know that that bumper sticker is a reference to Kaepernick. But is it referencing the same American flag that was used to beat police with on January 6th? Several policemen did die and several have committed suicide since that day. Or is it the same flag that was desecrated that day? I’m confused. I mean, when it comes to Kaepernick protesting police violence, these people claim to love the flag so much, but when it comes to losing an election, they didn’t mind stepping all over the flag and using it to actually try and kill someone. And what flag are they loyal to? In the South, they are still carrying the Confederate flag in many areas. Again, can we be clear????

2.) Here is a word that was turned into a political weapon that helped to skew an election: “Benghazi.” I don’t know about you all, but that word became a cuss word to me. If I never hear that word again in life, it will be too soon. Honestly, ya’ll. Honestly. I got tired of seeing Hillary Clinton. Even the word, “email,” started to make me sick. To add insult to injury, one Republican operative went onto a television news outlet and said that he was using the Benghazi hearings to plant public disdain for Clinton so that she would lose the election should she run for president. Whether you are a Clinton fan or not, and I am not saying that I am, you have to admit that this is SICKENING level of open hypocrisy.

And I am sitting here watching the way no media outlet, whether they are liberal-leaning or conservative, are not holding our government responsible for the waste of money with those hearings. This attack was not on our soil. There was no attempt to overthrow our democracy, but how many times did we hear the word, “Benghazi?” How many hours was Clinton on our screens? I would have rather been watching The Young & The Restless! I know Victor and Nikki just can’t get it together, but I did not want to participate in the demise of one woman’s political career. And for myself, I did not. I refused. And I am actually angry at the Democrats and the entire American free press for not talking about how much Clinton was called before these committees for an attack that happened on foreign soil.

3.) Here’s something. The argument against the Affordable Care Act is that “you don't want the government in your doctor’s office.” Well, unless you are a woman, then it is okay for the government and insurance companies to decide what kind of birth control you can have and heaven forbid a woman has to terminate a pregnancy. No, I am not telling you that I agree with abortion. I have children of my own. I’m not speaking on that one way or the other. But is unbelievably bold for the language of choice to be used against the passage of affordable healthcare and against women’s health choices simultaneously.

4.) What is critical race theory? Who first formulated it? When is it being taught? Where is it being taught? What teachers teach it? What’s the textbook for it? What grade? That’s what I thought. Critical race theory was formulated by a law school professor and it is not normally encountered until humanities scholars enroll in GRADUATE SCHOOL! There is no textbook for critical race theory and the average elementary school teacher is in no way, shape, form or fashion equipped pedagogically to handle that type of theoretical language in an elementary classroom. As a matter of fact, that’s dabbling in my area, and I have a Ph.D.

5.) Follow the science when the science says that no babies are born homosexual, but if the science says that wearing masks prevents a disease and infringes on our rights to make others sick, ignore it! Yeah. I am not going to try and explain any of this.

This is just irrational and belligerent. Period. And as silly as this may seem, people are dying. One of the leading anti-vaccine/antimask protesters in Texas died yesterday. This pandemic is now becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated as the Delta variant continues to wreak havoc.

The thing that scares me the most is that the people who suffer the most are children. Our children are being lost in the political fray and I fear that nobody cares about them. Nobody cares about how they will feel when they look back at their childhoods. What will our children think when they look back at a time when they could not have a normal graduation, when they couldn’t have a normal prom, when they couldn’t ride the school bus, when they couldn’t play on the playground, whey they couldn’t have recess? What will our children, when they become 30-year-olds and look back and think how they wanted so desperately to go to the zoo, but they couldn’t because selfish adults wouldn’t do something as simple as wear a mask? They couldn’t have a life, because we governed our lives by language that turned deadly?

This is not coming from my classes, but from my observations as a trained language professional. That’s what an English professor is: a trained language professional.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
LaToya R Jefferson-James

LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. Welcome! The professor is in! Come in and stay a spell. Let’s discuss and learn from one another.