People like to say that words don’t really oppress other people. We’re told that words are just words. This is wrong for so many reasons. Here are a few reasons…
Firstly, if you deny that words can harm people then you are not in a position to understand the harmful effects of emotional abuse, let alone those moments in your own life when someone’s words have upset you.
Secondly, when we speak we are performing an action. If I say “I do” in the context of a marriage ceremony I perform the action of agreeing to marry another human being. Likewise, when a person calls another person a slur they are not merely saying words. They are speaking words and thereby performing the action of subordinating another human being.
Thirdly, to understand the harmful effects spoken words have on someone we must not view these words as isolated incidents. Under structures of domination individuals will experience many minor moments of oppression which through their repetition over time add up to have a significant effect on a person’s mental life. While an individual sentence may not greatly harm another human being, it can cause severe harm when it is part of a wider chain of events. For example, you cannot understand the harm of calling a black person the n word unless you consider their life time of experiencing racism and racial slurs and the wider social context of white supremacy. We cannot evaluate the words a person speaks to another person by looking at the words in isolation. Words are spoken by humans to other humans who have had specific life experiences living within a specific society at a specific historic moment. We can therefore only evaluate words by considering the wider context of a person’s life history, the society in which they live, and the history of the society in which they live.
I personally know the harm that words can do to a human being because I grew up in an abusive home. One of the subtle ways I was abused was being constantly corrected by my dad for every minor imperfection he perceived in me. I was made to feel like I wasn’t good enough or was a failure. Being corrected a few times would not have severely harmed me. But being corrected several times a day over the course of a life time did seriously harm me.
I came to internalise this constant criticism by constantly criticising myself. I came to view everything I said or did as wrong or imperfect. I would spend hours attacking myself after I made the most minor of mistakes. I would and could only see all the ways in which I was terrible, be this terribleness real or imagined, and I struggled to see anything good about myself. I thought I was a net negative to the world. I felt guilty just for existing because by existing I was failing to be good enough and therefore shouldn’t exist and therefore deserved to die.
The voice of my abusive father became my own voice. The constant criticism went from being a voice I heard outside of my head to the voice I heard within my head. This meant that even when I was at university I had not left my abusive home. I had brought it with me, carrying it inside my mind. I still carry it with me each moment of my life.
Oppression isn’t just something that happens to you. It changes how you relate to yourself. It changes what thoughts your brain produces. It changes your very sense of self. If you’re constantly hearing that you’re ugly because you’re black or that you should be beaten because of your sexuality then your brain will internalise these messages and self-reproduce them. You’ll be looking in the mirror and your brain will tell you that your skin colour is bad or you’ll be finding a man attractive and your brain will tell you that you should be ashamed for feeling this. Oppression is not just one person doing something to someone else, it is also someone doing something to themselves because of how other people have treated them. This includes how other people have spoken to them.
The words of an oppressor are not simply things you hear. They are words which hurt you and flow into your brain and sink beneath your skin. Days, weeks, months and years after you heard those words your brain still says them to you, no longer as the words of somebody else but as your own.
The internalisation of oppression is the process whereby a human being learns to attack themselves more than another person ever did or could. Another person isn’t in a position to directly oppress you every second of the day. At some point, they will leave your company. But you cannot escape yourself. You are your constant companion. As a result, you alone can oppress yourself for every moment of your existence and this will be an oppression whose pain is that much harder to resist. When someone is punching you, you can externalise the pain. You can direct your anger towards another person. But when you are mentally punching yourself you cannot externalise the pain because you yourself are producing it. While any anger you feel will be anger directed towards yourself which will only in turn lead to more self-inflicted pain. You’re caught in a vicious cycle of self-destruction from which no escape seems possible.
Over several years I have learned to be a lot kinder to myself. When I attack myself I have learned to ask the question: whose talking? This makes me realise that I am not talking to myself, my abusive father is talking to me. Or I am not talking to myself, cis-het patriarchy is talking to me. This makes it easier to resist these thought loops as I have learned to view them as intrusive thoughts produced by experiences of oppression, rather than as thoughts produced by myself in isolation.
Given all of this, words matter. Be careful what you say to someone because your words could become the words that drive someone over the edge. They could become the words that eat another human being alive. Think before you speak. Your words have power.