Hamlet: Words, words, words
Polonius: What is the matter, my lord?
Hamlet: Between who?
Polonius: I mean, the matters that you read, my lord…
HAMLET Act II, Sc ii
I’m off to see Hamlet next week, so forgive me if some phrases come ‘trippingly’ to my tongue. Or blog.
The matter that I want to talk about today is words.
We write, therefore our matter, or material, is the word. But even if we don’t write, words matter.
Words have a potency we sometimes underestimate, and yet only words can change the universe. The bible tells us creation began with words: “And God said…”
You know the power of the word if you’ve ever had a vile epithet hurled at you. Certain words are not spoken in polite society. They weigh more than uranium. Instead, we refer to the “The N-word”, “The C-word”, “The B-word,” and so on.
A word doesn’t have to be offensive or pejorative to carry a lot of weight. Cancer is a heavyweight. So is death. We attach balloons to some words to try to give them lift. If we attach enough balloons, perhaps they’ll float far away and we won’t have to deal with them.
In Apocalypse Now, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is ordered to kill Colonel Kurtz. Of course, the military won’t come out and say that directly. Instead, Willard is ordered to “Terminate the Colonel’s command.”
“Terminate?” he asks.
“With extreme prejudice,” is the chilling reply.
It seems even the military feels the word ‘kill’ is too strong. Oh, the irony.
In today’s society, people have stopped dying. Have you noticed? Instead they “Pass On”. And once they do, they are not dead, they’re lost, as in, “We lost Auntie Mable last winter.” How very careless.
All this word-pondering began when someone posted a thing on Facebook. It was a series of quotes from the TV series, Criminal Minds. All the quotes were by Morgan, the handsome FBI agent and addressed to Penelope Garcia, the IT expert. Here is an example of what he said: “Hey, baby girl,” “You are a goddess, woman,” “Hey, silly girl,” “Hey, dollface…” you get the drift. The poster (female) said, “Every man should talk to his woman like Morgan talks to Garcia.”
Say what, now?
I went on what can only be called a rant. Women are not children, infants, dolls or goddesses. We are women. What’s wrong with being treated that way?
I quoted Dustin Hoffman’s character in Tootsie: “”My name is not Toots, Tootsie, Honey or Doll! It’s Dorothy! Capital D O R O T H Y.”
Cue response from bewildered male: “Morgan is exactly what society says a man should be: Tall, strong, athletic… He’s not harassing her, he’s showing that it’s OK to be accepting of people exactly as they are.”
So what is this extremely competent woman who’s a genius with computers? A baby girl?
You don’t understand, the male poster said. You can’t have seen the show.
In fact I have, and I found these exchanges cringe-worthy. I should add that the series depicts all these comments happening in the workplace. You know. In the F.B. freaking-I.
Now you may argue, as my daughter did, that ‘babydoll’ doesn’t mean lacking in intelligence, but means sweet and innocent. My response is that doesn’t matter. Women are women. Where does it say we have to be sweet, innocent, or childish?
Obviously, in private relationships, people have pet names for one another. Husbands and wives call each other darling, sweetheart and, yes, baby. Likewise people who are dating or engaged. But that’s not the same thing. Such exchanges are by mutual consent. Oddly, though, I’ve yet to hear a woman call her husband a ‘baby boy’. Perhaps I missed it.
I don’t think Craig, (the male poster) is a bad guy. In fact, he strikes me as being intelligent and sensitive. His heart is definitely in the right place. Likewise, my daughter is no dope and has a strong sense of her own self-worth. So I am bewildered that these people and doubtless countless more see no shame in calling a colleague, “Silly girl.”
Would Mrs Emma Peel allow John Steed to call her ‘baby girl’? She’d show Steed exactly where to stick his umbrella. Would Toby Ziegler call CJ Craig a ‘silly girl’? And live?
Words have power. Words matter. If you allow people to call you a child then you give them tacit approval to treat you that way. They don’t need to rob your dignity, your self-respect or your independence, because you willingly handed them over. Why? Because he’s a guy and he’s cute.
How do we deal with words that demean us? Words that rob us of our dignity? Black people co-opted the ‘n’ word, feeling if they themselves use it, they neutralise its power. I’m not black so I won’t presume to judge. But I am female and I do think women referring to themselves as ‘bitches’ is seriously misguided. I don’t need to be treated like a goddess or a child, I just want to be treated with respect. That’s not asking too much, surely.
Over the past couple of weeks, a lot of my friends have been troubled by an incident that originated from some seriously misguided use of words. I won’t get into the specifics, except to say a certain theatre employee took to twitter to castigate ‘fangirls’.
Now, if this was simple teasing, I think most of us would just shrug it off. OK, we’d wonder why women are being singled out. Men can be fans, too, but no one seems to bad an eye when they travel all over the country to attend a sporting event, for instance. But in this particular case, Mr Mouth takes to his twitter-soapbox to call female fans, “morons”. He suggested such fans commit “mass suicide.” “Just hang them,” he said. Fans were, he said, “bitter little cunts with dried powdered vaginas.”
At this point, I paused to wonder how many vaginas this chap had ever actually encountered.
There was a lot more. I won’t get into his description of fans as a ‘female cancer’, for instance, nor the sexist, ableist nonsense this fellow spouted. Eventually, he was called to meet with his employer and told someone had reported him. Shock! Horror! Our poor little fellow was overcome with… no, not shame. Outrage! He has freedom of speech, he said. He can say what he wants on social media and no one can stop him, he said. To prove his point, he resigned from his job rather than be investigated. Naturally, that’s the fault of the ‘fangirls’, too. At least inside his pointed little head.
Yes, you can use the entire arsenal of words in the English language — 1,025,109.8 according to the Global Language Monitor in January 2014, though I really have to wonder what .8 of a word looks like — But you cannot do so with impunity. To quote Oliver Wendell Holmes, you cannot shout fire in a crowded theatre. You cannot incite people to riot. You cannot hurl racial or misogynistic epithets and not expect consequences.
Words can comfort, bless, extol. They can convey complex philosophical ideas, spur nations into action, and elevate the human condition. They can also wound, humiliate and destroy.
Handle with extreme caution.
And the rest, as they say, is silence.