Language can help us heal

Language can help us heal

CW / Kylie Cowden

I have always loved language. Whether it be poetry, prose, song lyrics or newspaper articles, I have always been transfixed by the written word; every metaphor, image, clever turn of phrase or beautifully-structured sentence makes me feel like maybe magic does really exist — maybe we could learn to understand each other in a world where truth and meaning is so often obscured, where we live blinded by our own circumstances. Language is one of the only things that can truly touch the human heart, inspiring any range of emotions from excitement to nostalgia, from anger to love. 

It is not just the written word which so inspires me. Listening to people’s stories through podcasts, radio pieces and music can also have the same power to connect and engage us in each other’s humanity. Recently, an NPR piece about a liberal daughter and her conservative father in which they discussed their disagreements, but in which they also found common ground in their mutual love and respect for each other brought me to tears. It so encapsulated the tension I had been feeling with my own family and moved me to reconcile with them after days of not communicating.

Also recently, though, language has been doing nothing but saddening me. It is not just the hateful language that our nation has been immersed in since the recent election, but the lack of engagement I have seen with beautiful, potentially life-altering language. I have come across articles, Facebook posts, and other pieces of writing that were some of the most eloquent, logical and compassionate compositions I had ever seen. Even though many discussed controversial political issues, they attempted to reach all humans on a common basis of decency, respect and love for our fellow humans. But still – there were people who were unaffected. People that remained mired in their hatred, or perhaps something even more damning, their ignorance. Here was the spark, the linguistic magic, that they needed to grow in empathy and yet, it was ignored. The spark had fallen on dampened tinder.

I have been left sorely disillusioned by language. Though I have always believed in its transformative power, I have been asking myself recently if language can actually change anyone’s mind. How can someone hear or read the stories of marginalization and oppression that occur so often to so many groups in our society and then proceed with their bigotry or their apathy? It was through deep rumination of this question that I realized that language and stories can only ever affect open minds — people willing to understand that their reality is not the reality. 

Normally, the pieces I write for The Crimson White are taking a side in some controversial issue – be for this, and against that. But this is not a normal time. It is a time filled with hate and misunderstanding and willful ignorance and apathy. So now, I argue for nothing but opening your hearts and minds to the communication of those that surround you. Learn to love language, love communication, love conversations and disagreements and resolutions and compromise and all that becomes possible only through language. Read whatever you can get your hands on in order to expand your knowledge and your worldview. Listen to podcasts, to albums you might not normally have give a second thought to – expose yourself to new narratives, to new stories.

This is of course not to say that you have to normalize and tolerate bigotry under the guise of “listening to the other side.” Resist hatred vehemently in all its iterations — but also understand that hostility and apathy will never be eradicated by isolation. If you yourself are discounting the narratives of struggle being expressed by marginalized groups, reexamine the media you digest and the voices you give credence to that are silencing suffering. All people, no matter the station in life or political affiliation, always need to hear more stories. I still believe in language. I still believe in transformation and common ground and the magic of human connection. This is my exhortation for you to put your faith in language, too.

Marissa Cornelius is a junior majoring in secondary education. Her column runs biweekly.

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