Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me.
If only that phrase were true...
Two months ago I was sitting in a lecture and the speaker who is reputable and respected attempted to explain the importance of a memoir to the audience, when out of his mouth pops the clearly unplanned comparison to diaries...
"A memoir is different than a diary, because diaries are for sissies and little girls."
I immediately felt like all of the empowerment of my gender had been taken away from me. Was he saying girls are sissies (cowardly and weak)? Was he saying anyone regardless of gender who dialogues their thoughts before they are at the end of their life is a" sissie" and therefore like a girl, and therefore wimpy and powerless ? Where did we get this idea that "like a girl" means females are weak, wimpy, and the like?
Immediately, I felt angry, sad, and powerless, because words can and do hurt. This is because words lead to actions and belief/value systems. Words are simply semiotics and that is why language is so powerful.
So what is semiotics?
Stick with me for a minute as I give some background. It's important.
Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and how they are interpreted.
Ferdinand de Saussure, a semiotician, developed the theory of signs. He argued language “produces meaning by a system of relationships, by producing a network of similarities and differences.”[i] He believed language is a code that consists of a signifier (sound), and a signified (the concept expressed).
Yet, Saussure’s theory of semiology was quickly challenged, as at some point language must refer to something, not just what is similar and different. [ii]
Thus emerged, semiotician Charles Sanders Pierce who was more concerned with visual signs as opposed to verbal signs.
Jacques Derrida, a French philosopher and developer of semiotic analysis, challenged Pierce's form of thinking by theorizing that signs do not always produce a singular meaning or expression.
Thus we have the signifier (the sound), the signified (the concept expressed) and the Referent (the visual object itself)
Lets look at Joseph Kosuth's "One and Three Chairs" to understand this a bit better:
Kosuth, Joseph. One and Three Chairs. 1965. Wood folding chair,
mounted photograph of a chair, and mounted photographic enlargement of the
dictionary definition of "chair". Chair 82 x 37.8 x 53 cm, photographic panel 91.5 x 61.1 cm,
text panel 61 x 76.2 cm.
In this artwork the viewer sees a photo of a chair, a form of a chair, and the definition of a chair.
Which is the most accurate representation of the chair?
Maybe all of them, none of them, maybe the definition because without that what would we have? Or maybe you thought of something completely different when the word chair is said/thought. Maybe you thought of something like this:
Words are powerful because while our mind might interpret a word to signify a specific referent (object), it does not mean others will interpret it the same.
Going back to my original comment about the speaker. While I know he meant no harm, it does not mean his words did not harm or hurt and if we are going to be individuals who take a public platform then we need to be cautious with the words we say and choose words wisely, understanding they can be misinterpreted.
Clarification, definitions, and visuals are of utmost importance if we want to ensure the referent (object) of our signified signifier (our words expressed concept) is clearly being communicated.
This is even more so vital when referring to individuals, cultures, and people groups, as this is where the Other can emerge.
That day, when I was sitting in the lecture listening to this man tell me and the entire audience that "diaries are for sissies and little girls", he took away my power by making me feel like the Other (and not in a good way).
What is the Other?
The Other is traditionally considered what the referent (the object) of the signified signifier is not.
The signifier is the word, and in the context of the speaker the word was “memoir.”
This individual phrase produces a mental concept (the signified). The mental concept applied to “memoir” is the opposite of a diary (which he defined as something for sissies and little girls).
Therefore the referent is the image of the memoir, something for powerful people and not for little girls.
Therefore, the Other is the converse of these concepts, the "sissies and little girls".
Unfortunately, with his classification of little girls and sissies, the signifier (the concept produced) is the absence of power and the referent (the visual object) is a weak helpless girl with a diary.
And thus lies the power of our words. In just one simple phrase, so thoughtlessly mentioned, the female became devoid of all her power in the production on an idea.
Because words are not merely words, they are real ideas, real thoughts, and real values.
[i] Sardar, Ziauddin, and Borin Van Loon. Introducing Cultural Studies [Kindle]. London: Icon Books Ltd. 2012, How to do Cultural Studies: Semiotics, para. 5.
[ii] Hatt, Michael, and Charlotte Klonk. Art History: A Critical Introduction to Its Methods. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006, 202.
[iii] Hatt, Michael, and Charlotte Klonk. Art History: A Critical Introduction to Its Methods. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006, 209.