2001-11-03 / Columnists

Rox Vox

By Timothy Aaron-Styles

By Timothy Aaron-Styles

Words are powerful. Words can hurt, heal, inspire, discourage, soothe or provoke. Words, apparently, can bring into existence worlds and galaxies consisting of myriad places, laws, people and mysteries.

It's a shared notion among religions that The Creator, at the genesis of creation spoke and all things came into being. The (Creative) Word was simultaneously at, in, and the actual, beginning.

Ralph Ellison said, "If the word has the potency to revive and makes us free, it has also has the power to blind, imprison and destroy."

Could it be that the power of media is not so much in (the) technology as much as it is in the simple fact that media communicates words, concepts, ideologies and beliefs?

"A word after a word after a word is power," stated Margaret Atwood.

Historically, slave masters did not want enslaved Africans to read English (it's not that they couldn't read--they just couldn't read English!) because those books consisted of words that were factual and truth-filled.

Even fictional books had the potential to inspire the minds, hearts and spirits of those former free men and women--who were once kings and queens, artisans, griots, legislators, traders, fishermen, warriors and healers--now mentally and physically enslaved within anew social, political and economic reality.

Joseph Conrad said, "Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality."

Words can alter apparent realities because words deconstruct and re-invent. Words provide options. For every word one knows, a new possibility exists. The more words one has under her linguistic belt, the more potential power she yields. The power to re-create and create new social, political and economic worlds.

"The more articulate one is, the more dangerous words become," stated May Sarton.

"I apologize" and "I was wrong" depending upon ones perspective, belief, and personal investment are, either the most powerfully healing and conciliatory phrases in the world, or the two most compromising, debilitating and powerless utterances. As conciliatory phrases they are spiritual and transcendental. As expressions of weakness and compromise, they are earthly, worldly and ego-centered.

To say, "I'm sorry--I was wrong" according to the majority admits weakness. However, to some, a minority, such expressions indicate a higher standard for one's humanness. They believe that admittance of wrongdoing and regret for ill deeds leads to spiritual redemption and, in some cases, social healing.

In her book "The Language War," Robin Tolmach Lakoff states, "An apology…it changes the world for participants, their relative status…their future relationship. In making an apology, the maker 1) acknowledges wrong doing; 2) acknowledges that the addressee is the wrong party; 3) admits needing something (forgiveness)…to make things right again. Apologies put their makers at a disadvantage in two ways: as transgressors and as people in need of something from those against whom they have transgressed.

Hence, a true apology is always painful and real apologies tend to occur either between equals or from lower to higher. Higher ups 'never explain, never apologize," first because they don’t have to, and second because it might threaten their status."

So, why can't African-Americans receive a slightest hint of an apology for the enslavement of their ancestors and the subsequent social and institutional mistreatment? Maybe the more appropriate question is, thanks to Lakoff: why won't we?

Although apologies have the power to heal, transform and reconcile, what hinders some from bringing themselves to utter a simple phrase like, "I am sorry for what happened to your ancestors" or "I apologize what my ancestors did to your ancestors."

Words have power. To heal or to divide. Let the words of our mouths be acceptable to a Higher calling.


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