Words Matter

Some of us grew up with the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It was a line of defense on the childhood playground, a way to rebuff verbal bullies and avoid a fistfight. It is also false. Words can hurt – sometimes more deeply and with more long-lasting effect than sticks and stones. Words can also heal, inspire, uplift, and unite. Words matter. It’s hard to imagine anything with more impact on us as individuals and on our community than how we speak to and about each other.

At Miami, The Code of Love and Honor guides what we say and do, including respecting the dignity and rights of others and “their right to hold and express disparate beliefs.” Honoring that sentiment is vital for our growth, for problem-solving, for unity, and for our success. Insensitive or insolent words divide and weaken us. Mutually respectful dialogue helps us flourish.

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to witness the importance of words first-hand. At a demonstration near the Armstrong Student Center, words of division, bias, and intolerance were used by an outside group – words that could easily have caused hurt. What happened instead was that Miami students responded with words of their own – words of acceptance, tolerance, and support for those being targeted by protestors, their fellow Miamians. What a powerful gift many of them shared by living this line of the Code: “I demonstrate Love and Honor by supporting and caring for my fellow Miamians.”

Words are the way that human beings shape the world. We each seek coherence and meaning to the vast encounters we have in our environment. Language gives us the ability to understand, but it also puts us at risk of misunderstanding. Misunderstanding one word’s meaning can lead to completely misunderstanding everything a person may be trying to say.

As anyone who has studied a second language knows, most words don’t have only one meaning; they can be interpreted many ways. One challenging task of translation is selecting the most precise equivalent for the particular text from among an array of choices. A similar challenge sometimes arises in our conversations with each other. We might hear someone make a remark that is negative in our personal vocabulary, but we shouldn’t assume that’s what they intended to convey. That’s why dialogue is indispensable. Instead of reacting to a remark with “That’s not true,” dialogue starts with “What did you mean by that?” Through dialogue, we might discover how much we have in common despite the differences in word choice.

More than ever, we need such respectful engagement in the 21st century. We’re living in an increasingly diverse world, and we’ll have to learn to talk to each other to ensure that our differences are a source of creativity, delight, and enrichment rather than division and pain. We should, for example, respect the rights of groups to choose the names that are applied to them by others, and avoid using those names in any negative way.

Our commitment to Love and Honor, our history of standing up for human equality, and our virtues of openness, respect, honesty, and generosity put Miami in a strong position to model and convene civil discourse and fruitful conversations about the great challenges facing us as individuals and as a society. Knowing words can hurt, we can choose instead to use them to heal, elevate, and unite. We are One Miami.

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