In the age of social media, it’s easy to forget the power our words have on others. Sitting behind the safety of a computer screen makes it simple for us to say whatever we think with little consequence.
With the ease and ability to “like,” delete or comment on anything that comes across our feed, speaking our mind often comes first — and thinking about the impact of our words comes last.
We’ve come to believe the internet gives us this innate right to exercise our freedom of speech, no matter how unkind our opinion may be. We couch words less, we’re more direct, and if anyone is rude to us in return, we have that lovely little “delete and block” button, eliminating that person from our feed (and life) entirely. People can come and go from our lives now with the click of a button.
Social media has desensitized us. Some people call it “cancel culture.” I call it becoming numb and void of compassion. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when seeing people in person is one of the most unsafe things we can do, it’s become easier than ever to lean in to social media — both as a way to connect with others and as a venting outlet. We’ve become numb to the feelings of others, and in many ways, to our own feelings as well. We forget that our words have power because we don’t have to witness the direct impact on the faces of those who read them.
We’ve seen this repeatedly over the past several years. We’ve witnessed, almost daily, the numerous examples of how words (especially from those in power) have had the ability to cause division and dissention, have lured people into fear and away from facts, have made life unsafe for minority groups, have ended lives unnecessarily, have even incited violence.
The familiar phrase “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” just isn’t true. Our words have the power either to uplift and edify or to tear down and destroy, to bring life or to end life, to bestow decency or to dehumanize.
“The familiar phrase ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ just isn’t true.”
If you think of any people group, you can quickly come up with both appropriate (what we could call “PC”) terms that communicate respect, or with derogatory (“non-PC”) terms that communicate dislike or disgust. A few easy examples are terms like Native American vs. “savage,” Black or African American vs. the N-word, LGBTQ people vs. “homosexuals” or “transvestites,” and disabled vs. “crippled” or even worse, the R-word.
Even typing these comparisons makes my skin crawl. I hope it does yours too, because that means you, too, feel the difference in your gut: one communicates dignity and respect, the other is insulting, offensive and pejorative. One communicates recognition of that person’s identity as different but equal, while the other labels that person’s difference as “less than” the standard (white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, male). It’s the fuel for white supremacy, patriarchy and racism. And it has got to stop.
A prime example of the direct impact our words have on others would be the transgender community. Transgender people (especially transgender youth) are some of the most vulnerable people in our nation.
The Trevor Project’s 2020 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health reports that more than half of transgender and non-binary youth (52% to be exact) contemplated suicide in 2020. That number is beyond egregious. And that is just the number of who have seriously contemplated it but have not (yet) acted.
However, 40% of transgender adults have reported actual suicide attempts, with 92% of them happening before they turned age 25.
“Something as simple as using the correct pronouns for transgender and non-binary youth has shown to reduce suicide attempts by half.”
These numbers are extremely alarming, and yet something as simple as using the correct pronouns for transgender and non-binary youth has shown to reduce suicide attempts by half. What may seem like a simple inconvenience to you is something that can save lives, not by a small margin, but by 50%.
It’s simple: Dignity. Respect. Kindness.
This is all it takes to save lives. And educating ourselves about minority groups and what life is like in their shoes will help bend our compassion toward them as well. Regardless of whether your “other” is different based on religion, class, age, sexual orientation, gender identity or ability, each one has the right and deserves to feel human and whole.
Our words have the power to shape a new culture — a culture different than the one we have seen over the last four years. A culture that values and celebrates diversity, and a nation where everyone can thrive.
Yes, there is much work to be done for our country to achieve that, but it starts with you. Let your words, whether through your mouth or your fingertips, give life to everyone you meet and together, we can make the world a safer, healthier and more loving place for all of us to live and thrive.
Amber Cantorna grew up in the deeply conservative evangelical culture of Focus on the Family and now lives with her wife in Denver, where she advocates for equality everywhere. She is a national speaker, the author of Refocusing My Family and Unashamed: A Coming Out Guide for LGBTQ Christians, and host of the Unashamed Book Club. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and learn more about her work at AmberCantorna.com.