Just this week, I read a sickening piece of news, a very small article about a man who stomped on his girlfriend’s pregnant stomach. When asked why he had done such a thing, he was quoted as saying his girlfriend “didn’t deserve” the baby she was carrying.
We have been hearing a lot lately about the way in which women’s issues have become a matter of political debate. Regardless of where one stands politically on issues of reproductive health, I know that most of the women in my life feel that the term “war on women” is a rather accurate assessment of the way they feel about the way in which male-dominated politics seems to be intersecting with a variety of women’s issues right now. I have no idea whether the man in the news story who stomped on the stomach of the mother of his unborn child has anything to do with the larger issues of women and public policy, but as I hear about this story and other stories in which women become victims, I find myself reflecting on the power of words, or language, to shape human behavior.
Like it or not, we live in a world in which a lot of words get thrown at us constantly via internet, email, television, and radio. Many of these words we might not give much attention. But over time, they work their way into us little by little, giving them the opportunity to shape our actions in ways we may not even notice. When we hear lots of people suggesting that women’s choices about their health, and other aspects of their lives, should be narrowed on the basis of some public policy position, the language used in some of this conversation – some of it exceedingly careless language – creates the suggestion that women are somehow less valuable, and in the minds of some men, this can get translated, I think, into a sense that they have the right to exercise a certain control over women. And in the minds of a few men, this can get translated into a license to control women through violence. This is only reenforced when certain states are seen adopting draconian legislation that basically legalizes the violation of a woman’s body in the pursuit of some perceived public policy interest.
The Christian tradition puts a high value on language. John’s Gospel speaks of Jesus as the Word of God made flesh, and the words of the Bible occupy a sacred status in our tradition, even if various churches and Christians define what that means in different ways. The point is that our tradition makes a sacred connection between the idea of speech and action in the world. Indeed, the poetry of the Genesis creation stories depict God speaking all of creation into existence. Divine language is seen as having fundamentally shaped our reality, and human language also has power to shape and influence action in the world.
When we speak carelessly, when we seek to define others with language that demeans or devalues them, we may think that we are simply being terribly clever. We may cling to that old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” But we forget that sticks and stones usually end up getting thrown and breaking others only AFTER words have already done so.
The Judeo-Christian teaching that we should love our neighbors as ourselves is a commandment not only about our actions but about our speech. Let us all be more careful about what we say, because the sum total of all those words that come to us all day long do have power, and they do help to shape the world around us, for better or for ill. Language is instrumental in creating either a climate of compassion or a climate of violence. There are far too many people these days working on making a climate of violence and fears that they think somehow serves their interest. Women and others among us are paying a price for that. And that needs to change. We need to do better.