The Importance of Words

6 mins read

By Hannah Kohn


On Wednesday, three events took place which I only later realized were related.

  1. I went to the “Fireside Chat with Sam Killerman,” an LGBTQ* advocate and educator. One of the topics discussed in this constructive and fruitful dialogue was the preconceived notion of “the Women’s and Gender Studies student” or “the feminist” which cause many people to prejudge who someone is based on these identities.
  2. I watched the presidential debate and was once again blown away by the absurd nature of this year’s election. As I watched, I was unexplainably interested by Trump’s insistence that Hillary Clinton’s facts were “words, just words.”
  3. As has become a habit – or perhaps a coping mechanism – I tweeted gender commentary during the debate. One tweet poked fun at Trump’s use of the term “9-month abortion” rather than what presumably he meant to say, late term abortion. I snarkily noted that if a baby is coming out of a woman at 9 months – well, that’s called giving birth.

These events came together for me when I was attacked by an orgy of twitter users, all of whom were complete strangers to me. They began by focusing on my abortion comment, saying I support the murder of babies, that I’m sick, that I should do my research about babies “coming out in pieces,” and that sort of (sadly) common rhetoric. But then the comments descended into something much darker: direct, misogynistic attacks on me. For instance, @dustin_millz greeted me with “hey c***!” and didn’t become a whole lot friendlier throughout his message. These comments were menacing, explicit, and focused primarily on my identity as a woman.

These twitter users forcefully applied preconceived notions, like those we talked about at the Sam Killerman event, to me as a woman and a feminist. By daring to utter the word abortion (gasp!) these preconceived notions were compounded. And this is where Donald Trump’s insistence that Hillary’s truths are “words…just words” came to have greater meaning for me. I take issue with this because I do not believe that words are, or ever can be, “just words.” If my tweets were “just words,” why would I be attacked and presumed to be of a certain politics and identity by strangers? If my utterance of the word abortion was “just” a word, why would this lead to personal attacks on me as a woman? To take this a step further, if Trump’s comments about women in the 2005 tape that emerged were “just words,” why do they hold such traumatic meaning for those who have been sexually assaulted? At the same time, why do so many fight tooth and nail to defend his words as harmless banter between men?

The moment this textual landscape really becomes no longer “just words,” though, is when discourse transforms into material action. If Trump’s so-called “locker room talk” gives others permission to say similar things about women, or if his actions, transferred to millions of people by his words, frame sexual assault as “just guys talking,” others now have the go-ahead from a presidential candidate to turn his vile words into action. Likewise, the gendered insults and expletives hurled at me on Twitter were not “just words.” They were the linguistic site of the very real, very material violence against women. This discursive violence is inextricably linked the sexual, physical, and emotional violence constantly perpetuated against women. Far from “just words,” these comments are a location of misogynistic action.

The misogynistic twitter posse wanted to do more than just reiterate violent discourse, though. The authors of these messages wanted to silence me – a woman, a feminist – through their intimidation and their taunts. And this is where I believe words have a place in bringing about change. I refuse to be silenced by these bullies, because by not being silent, I believe I can bring about material change. I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important it is for us at Drew, as an educated and social-justice minded community, not to be silenced. By speaking out against misogyny, against racism, against homophobia, and against xenophobia, we have the power to turn our words into action and social change. We have the power to counter violent lies with rightful truths. And in so doing, we can dismantle preconceived notions of what and who we are by claiming the space and the right to define ourselves.

Words are never just words: words are the platform from which we shape reality. Let’s make that reality one in which people of all genders, races, ethnicities, classes, sexualities, and religions can peacefully coexist with each other. Let’s make that reality one in which what is true and good prevails.
Hannah is a senior Women’s and Gender Studies major with Political Science and Anthropology minors.

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