This essentially is “I have a right to be offended (Part Two)”.  My original plan was to make two posts; with one defending the need for safe spaces and another defending the benefits of rude spaces.  Well, I’m going to leave that for another day, because YET another person made this assertion in the context of the twitter block bot.

(To be clear, I’m just using this particular tweet as an example, I am not implying that KryptonianAtheist personally holds all the views I’m discussing.  In fact, we had a constructive twitter conversation.)

I read the article and stand by my statement that words have only the power you give them. Can’t control others, just reaction. @MAMelby

— KryptonianAtheist (@KalSonofJorEl) August 19, 2013

So, let’s break this down a bit.  First, “Words have only the power you give them”.

Okay, first the trivial response.  Words DO have “power” in a physical sense.  They are physical manifestations that are incident on your senses; whether they are written or signed and seen, spoken and heard, or brailled and touched, they are real.

Now, as far as the concepts that the words represent, those are only given power by denotation and connotation that are generally agreed to in an academic sense (dictionaries and what-not) and a social sense.  Sure, in that most fundamental way, if “you” means society generally – yes – the power of words is socially defined.  However, that doesn’t somehow make that power non-existent.

And this is where I make my point.  It seems that some skeptifreethoughtathesecularists are taking their materialism to some sort of bizarre and absurd extreme.  “I do not believe in the unseen!  I do not believe in the immaterial!”  We assume that these statements refer to those things that have no substance, yet are claimed to have substance and physical effects (such as ghosts making it cold, God healing the sick, and souls going to heaven or hell), where there is no evidence for those effects, or there are alternate explanations for those effects, or (at the very least) Occam’s razor can be used to lop off those explanations from our models of the universe.  Right?

This healthy “lack of belief” seems to have completely run amok and morphed into denialism of anything difficult to measure or previously thought of as immaterial – you know – the soul and the mind, as opposed to the body.  The underlying current here is that “things of the mind” such as social constructs, psychological effects, and concepts are nonexistent.  The implication of what he is saying is that, since word concepts are immaterial, their impact is of no *real* consequence.

The impact is internal, so all responsibility to mitigate ill effect is also internal, right?

A few months ago, some random person went into my nephew’s workplace and punched him in the face.  The person was drunk and nobody has any idea what his motivation was.  He didn’t punch my nephew hard enough to hurt him badly.  Everyone leapt to my nephew’s defense.  The guy eventually, a few days later, was brought into the business and was made to make an apology in front of the entire staff.

I doubt that the words-have-no-power crew would focus on how my nephew has a responsibility to react mildly to being punched in the face or blame him (and the crew) for feeling unsafe, angry, and demanding reparatory action on the part of the person who punched him.  Because, you know, punching people has direct physical effects, not just psychological effects and is therefore “real”.

A similar thing happened to me.  Someone came into my work place.  He began calling the customers “faggots”.  He used derogatory language toward women.  When I told him he had to leave, he became angry.  He claimed that nobody cares about us and that the police would not come to remove him.  He started sharing personal sexual information that made me believe he had serious emotional problems.  I continued to ask him to leave.  He threatened to “kill my faggot boyfriend” (my husband also worked for the same company, but I don’t know if he was actually referring to him) and to break my jaw.

Words have no power?  On what fucking planet do words have no power?

The tweet is clear (as he expounded on it) that we “can’t control others” (as if they are leafs in the wind, unable to be held responsible for their behavior) but only our reactions.  Well, yes, ideally, we can control our reactions to a great degree.  One reaction is to create and use a block bot to avoid the stressful or annoying stimulus so that the need to use various coping mechanisms for mitigating harmful psychological effects are decreased.  This is similar to banning someone from a work place after that person expressed “unpopular opinions” about whether or not gay people and women are human; and whether or not I should have the shit beat out of me and my husband killed.

That “reaction”, according to this crew, is unacceptable.  And although I sympathize with the issue of the block bot potentially causing accounts to be suspended due to twitters own flagging system for suspensions [edit: this issue has been resolved]; much of the rhetoric smacks of a particularly nasty brand of entitlement to other people and other people’s attention, time, and deference.

But I think there is more to it than that.

This “sticks and stones” mentality; that words somehow do not have power unless we *choose* to react to them – an absolutely ridiculous claim on practically every level – indicates an extremely toxic bit of socialization that disproportionately harms men.

There are many types of coping mechanisms to deal with various levels of verbal abuse and harassment.  There are various ways we can choose to react – absolutely.  However, pretending as though the words have no impact (no power) is a crappy way of essentially NOT ACTUALLY DEALING with it.  Suppression of emotion – emotion being the natural reaction to annoying or alarming stimuli – is not healthy and may actually increase distress.  Yet suppression of emotion is what is traditionally socially expected of men (boys don’t cry) and what is, in patriarchal fashion, being demanded of women (again and again) who want any seat in the boy’s club.

Pretending that words have no power and those words actually not being stressful are two different things.  What makes words stressful or not stressful; is context and power.

Online, someone suggested that he was going to suffocate my son with a plastic bag.

This person knew I had a son.  This person knew my address.  In many contexts, these words would go straight to police and I would have very good reason to be terrified.  However, they were said in the context of an extremely rude space; as sort of a bad joke.  It was still a bit unsettling, due to its graphic nature.  The moderator of the space decided that it was simply too much, and banned him and a few others.  I was blamed for this decision (not the moderator – because bitches are witches) and I was ostracized from that community and essentially left it after being involved for several years.

That’s how these things go down, by the way.

Also, words have more power when the person saying them has power and privilege over you.  The person who threatened me at work, even though he got into a fist fight with a cab driver the moment he left the store (demonstrating to me that he was capable of violence), was not arrested.  I spent a good deal of time completely alone (although a customer was kind enough to stay most of the night there with me) in a place he knew I was.  He appeared much stronger than me physically.  I was a sitting duck.  I panicked every time the door opened.

If I was physically stronger than him.  If I had other supports around me.  If simply leaving would have been a valid option.  If the police took the threat seriously.  If……I had more power, his words would have had less power.

That’s how this works.

If you have the power to escape; to disengage when you want to…words have less power.

If you are in the in-group; if there is little danger of being denied social interactions or supports…words have less power.

If you have thousands of fans; willing and able to defend you vehemently and stroke your ego….you too can come off as a disaffected god-man made of grit and metal; shrugging off the slings and arrows of your enemies.

If anything the conflation of strength and stoicism is a ruse; a confusion of cause and effect.  The little Spartan boy who is able to avoid crying out while being flogged much less being insulted; is confused with the person who has enough social power to order, with only his words, someone to their torture or death and has no need to fear the words of others.

It is not YOU being some sort of emotionally defunct ubermensch that makes it possible to brush off “words” as being “powerless”; typically it’s one of two things 1) denial or 2) your damned privilege.

Of course, there is the third option.  You might actually have a pathological asocial lack of emotional investment in other human beings.  I certainly hope that isn’t the norm considering the amount of people that seem to buy into this crass and indefensible party-line that since “words have no power” they are entitled to an audience obligated to listen to those words.

They aren’t.