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Words as Weapons

“Sticks and stones can break my bones.  But words can never harm me.”


Words as Weapons

These are several ways in which words can become weapons.

First – Harm

Whether we wept with shame in the schoolyard as children, were reduced to quivering jelly by a parent’s criticism, or were torn apart by a friend’s contempt, we all know from experience the above saying isn’t true.

Words express thoughts and feelings, convey images, give directions, invoke emotions, and provide an understanding of complex issues.

Words, however, have also been used to manipulate, coerce, cajole, and deceive.  Those with malicious or self-serving intent obfuscate and obscure straight-forward definitions with ambiguous, intentionally vague, or disingenuous meanings, forcing relatively simple ideas into verbal gymnastics arenas.

Deborah Tannen, author of, You’re Wearing That?  Says that words become weapons because of the metamessages they deliver.  The title of her book, as an example, would be the metamessage delivered by a mother to her daughter.

The point is that it’s how and why words are uttered that matter, way beyond their literal meaning.  Our emotional histories with the speaker shape the metamessages we hear, and, in turn, those messages inform the speaker’s words as well.

Second – Misinformation

There are few places where the distortions of the spoken and written word have become more apparent than in contemporary politics, both on the national and geopolitical stages.  Words have become weapons with devastating efficacy.

Misinformation is the spreading of false or inaccurate information and is predominately derived from ignorance, incomplete assessments, incorrect analysis, or personal opinion.

Remember, language evolves to better conform to societal norms and is itself not necessarily malfeasant or deceptive.  But manipulating words and language to mean something they do not or invoke specific emotional responses is another weaponizing of words.

Third – Individual Words

Finally, individual words can be used as weapons.

Think of the word gay, which used to commonly be used as happy or merry.  Now, it is often used either derogatorily or subjectively against other people implying homosexuality.  Other words we hear and use that have mixed meanings dependent on the context are boy, girl, marriage, cloud, footprint, friend, like, meme, and swipe.

Another individual word category that is weaponized is profanity.

Profanity is becoming more and more mainstream, but its constant use defiles us more than most people realize.

Cursing only has one practical use.

The act of being boorish has a way of waking people up when they have stopped paying attention.  Using a swear word does have the effect of making people snap out of it and take notice.

The problem is that it only works for a short time.  If cursing becomes common, that utility is no longer viable, for the cursing itself will be tuned out.  This truth is why much of today’s profanity is meaningless.

The Bible

Consider the words awesome and awful.

Their original meaning was to be “worthy of awe,” which is how we get expressions like “the awful majesty of God.”  Now it means terrible or really bad.

The way we use our words shows our hearts.  It reveals the kingdom values that govern us, and it tells the principle of life that animates us and forms and directs our hearts.  What comes out of our mouths is either a saltwater spring or a freshwater spring, a good tree or a bad tree.

The ninth commandment (Ex. 20:16; Deut. 5:20) says,

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

This is courtroom language, where one can serve as a witness who brings testimony that is false and brings harm and even death to another person.

Throughout Scripture, God calls us to protect, build up, restore, and heal others with our words.  Our words are to bring life and not death (Proverbs chs.12–14), to be gracious, seasoned with salt (Col. 4:5–6); they are to be truth, and they are to build up that they may give grace to those who hear (Eph. 4:25–32).

It is our responsibility to be wise and careful with our words.  They not only reflect what is in our hearts, but they can also, if used foolishly and carelessly, change and distort our hearts, dishonor God, hate our neighbors, and ultimately promote the cause of Satan’s kingdom.

James speaks of the tongue as lit by the fire of hell.

And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.  The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.  With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.  (James 3:6, 9)

As business leaders and entrepreneurs, we need to examine our impact on the world with our use of words.  Are we building others up or tearing them down?  Are we truthtellers or liars?  Are we degrading ourselves, or are we displaying our talents and intellect?

Always think before you speak.