Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
In my earlier post on Words Matter, I explored why it matters what we call things. It matters whether we call something a lie or an alternative fact, an alt-right group or neo-Nazis, or even, according to the highway patrols, an accident or a crash. I argued then two points:
The words we use shape our perceptions and attitudes
We have the power to resist
Recent events have made me want to revisit the topic. Words matter, but how much?
Can words kill?
Of course, I’m especially thinking of the case of Michelle Carter, the young woman found guilty of manslaughter for encouraging her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, to kill himself. At one point, he got out of the truck that he had filled with exhaust fumes, apparently deciding for himself that he didn’t want to go through with it. His girlfriend texted him. She told him to get back in the truck.
Did she kill him?
She had been encouraging him to kill himself for weeks, according to the record of her messages, and she without a doubt did tell him to get back in the truck. She is obviously young, and she acted foolishly and cruelly.
This case has been notable not only for the apparent heartlessness of the young woman but also for its conclusion that words can kill.
Manslaughter requires that someone act recklessly and with wanton disregard for the likely consequences of the actions. It seems clear to me that Carter’s actions meet that standard. Or she knew exactly what she was doing and was acting not recklessly or with disregard but with full regard for the likely consequences.
Previously (as I understand it from my many non-years of legal training), manslaughter required physical action. The defendant at least had to be physically present to be charged with, much less convicted of, manslaughter. But here is a case where the defendant is not present, except by phone. She doesn’t act, except through text messages and phone calls.
If she killed him, she killed him with words.
The judge focused on that moment when the young man had gotten out of the truck, feeling sick and stopping himself, as he reportedly had done many times before. He reached out to a loved one, a friend or family member, as he reportedly had done many times before. Many times before, those loved ones had said words that discouraged suicide, that reminded him of why he should live. This time, his loved one said words that encouraged suicide, that told him to go through with it.
This time, words killed.
So I’ve got to ask: In previous attempts, did words save him?
If, according to the judge’s verdict, Michelle Carter had the power to kill Conrad Roy III with her words, “Get back in the truck,” do we have the power to save a suicidal friend by the words we use?
That’s a lot of pressure on the family and friends of a suicidal person. Many people have known the pain of saying everything they could think of, offering many words of love and support, and still experiencing the suicide of a loved one. We all know that words are not always enough.
Others have commented that the judge erred in allowing words alone to kill, saying that the young man is the one who got back in the truck, who had bought the equipment, drove to the secluded place and set up the equipment. In the end, the very end, he is the one who killed himself.
But past history showed he wouldn’t have done so if not for the heartless words of Michelle Carter. Had he called someone else, he might still be alive.
Who is responsible?
I wrote before that words shape our attitudes and perceptions, but we have the power to resist.
It’s hard not to think that Michelle Carter’s heartless words and actions contributed to Conrad Roy III’s death. It’s hard not to think that Roy would be alive otherwise. And if words matter, as I and others argue they do, words surely matter in this case.
But do they matter that much?
Because if so, then words are not just shaping but determining, not just powerful but inescapable.
As much as I believe in the power of words, I can’t believe in them that much.
If words have that much power, then language and rhetoric are instruments not just of influence or persuasion but of force.
I started this post thinking that the judge was right, that words can kill, and here is a case where words most definitely killed. After all, how many times had I argued that it matters what we say, that saying is doing, that genres are not just linguistic forms but actions (nod here to genre followers!). How can I say that words matter, that language is action, and not accept that words can kill?
Words act on us, shape us, influence us, create us, but we can resist.
Contrary to the words of the Borg on Star Trek: The Next Generation, resistance is not futile.
I preach not only that words matter but that we can become aware of how words shape us and choose to act differently. If we start to notice words, their power shifts. If they depend on a subconscious effect—like the use of pronouns to include some and exclude others—calling attention to them weakens that effect. If they depend on conscious manipulation—like using the pronoun “they” for singular people of any gender identification—calling attention to them gives them the only power they have.
What about Conrad Roy III? Would it have turned out differently for him if he had become aware of how Michelle Carter was using her words to manipulate him? Would it have turned out differently if he had realized that he wouldn’t win the love of this young woman by doing what she told him to do?
Or was he more aware of the power of her words than the news accounts have generally given him credit for? Did he contact her precisely because he knew what her words would be, because he needed, this time, to hear the words that would help him carry out what he had long planned but been unable to complete?
Either way, I find I have to stop short of accepting that words can kill, without other actions accompanying them. Words alone can perjure someone, libel someone, or slander someone, but words alone can’t kill someone.
Words can incite riots, encourage voting, instill hatred, and promote violence. But words alone can’t riot, vote, hate, or shoot someone.
The implications of this case go way beyond what I’ve begun here. And the power of words needs still more exploration.
I don’t buy the schoolyard saying
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me”
Words can hurt me. Words can definitely hurt. But there are limits. The case of Michelle Carter and the pitiful Conrad Roy III may just have proved what those limits are.