Sunday, 28 February 2010

The Power of Words

While strolling through my twitter feed this evening I came across a few tweets by Scott Kurtz, author and artist behind the online phenomena that is PVP. I have a great deal of respect for the man as a writer, an artist and avant garde internet mogul. However something he twittered tonight really jarred and I had to respond:

pvponline Gah! Reconnecting with my Aunts and Uncle has made them aware of my site. They are very catholic and don't like my bad language.

pvponline So now I'm getting emails about how God gave me this talent and he didn't do it for me to use his name in vain

pvponline I was straight with them. Told them I wasn't changing and that I resented them believing they knew what god wanted of me. God will TELL ME.

pvponline Scott, God wants you to stop cussing. Really? Cause I talked to him today and he said words were just words and he only cared about intent. (emphasis mine)

I appreciated that being browbeaten by relatives over ones art is not fun but I was bothered that someone who uses language to entertain and often to inspire would be so blasé about the power of words and so I responded thusly:

Phil73805 @pvponline Whether or not you choose to cuss I don't care but please don't pretend that words are without great power!

There we are, my perspective made clear, or as clear as you can get with 140 characters at your disposal; he may see it he may not but I've done my bit...and then, much to my surprise, he responded:

pvponline @Phil73805 Words are words. The intent behind the words have power.

I'm sorry Mr. Kurtz but that is empty semantics.

The written word though guided by intent is clearly open to a greater degree of interpretation, one only has to visit a message board or any online discussion to see how even the best meaning communication can be devastating when misunderstood regardless of the intent behind the words. I feel that this obligates people to be careful with the enormous power that the gift of language bestows.

Don't think that is only an issue with the written word. I have had psychotherapy clients return the week after a session and tell me that something I said had meant a great deal to them and it turns out that what they recall was not what I intended and yet it was no less meaningful to them for all that and indeed no less powerful. In fact there are times when I won't point out the misunderstanding because the message they walked away with has had therapeutic value that might be reduced by attempting to put my intent before theirs. They have been their own therapist and who the hell am I to argue? They've taken my words and used them to form a message that is of use to them, you'd be surprised how often that happens in day to day communication outside the therapy room.

We can all recall words spoken to us by teachers, some positive and some negative, and can recount many years later the impact those words had regardless of the intent. An off-hand compliment about ones ability in science drives the student into a lifetime career, for good or for ill. An angry retort from a stressed teacher leading a child and then the adult to believe that they'll never amount to anything. These are oft heard stories.

Words have enormous power Mr. Kurtz, yours often inspire laughter and even thoughtful reflection. Your humour regularly has a deeper message disguised with a smile. That is a tremendous gift. And a powerful responsibility. Like I said, cuss or don't cuss. I genuinely don't mind, in fact I'll go a stage further and say that sometimes the cussing serves to highlight your point with humour. Put more simply, it makes me laugh. But Sir, please don't attempt to belittle the power of words while fighting off holier-than-thou relatives.

In a world blathering on about the right to free speech we might forget the terrible responsibility that goes with it. Words can create and can destroy in equal measure.

Mr. Kurtz I doubt you'll even see this but if you do let me please say this. Your words and your art have given me great pleasure over the years for which I am truly grateful. My post here is not intended to be at all hurtful. It's just that words are deeply meaningful to me, as a teacher and a therapist some might argue that words are my stock in trade, and I felt that your words needed to be challenged even if it is only in this small way.


  1. I see where Scott is coming from, but I think there is more power in how the person hearing the words interprets them, rather than how the person saying them intends them.

  2. Words will always be interpreted in some way by those we communicate with. I feel that this obligates us to take great care with what we choose to say. There can be tremendous power both in the intention and the interpretation. I think that this serves to double the obligation to be mindful when speaking or writing.

    To use a crude analogy, if I get hit by a car because the driver suffers a previously undiagnosed epileptic fit it hurts me no less for his/her lack of harmful intention. From the driver's point of view, is their sense of responsibility lessened by the knowledge that it wasn't their fault or were there warning signs of illnes that were ignored?

    It isn't my intention to freeze anyone into inactivity for fear of doing harm. All I'm doing is trying to create an awareness of the power we bear and the responsibility that goes with it. In an age of 'rights' I think responsibility has become a dirty word.


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