Words matter. And how we use words matters.
Words are powerful tools. Words translate our imagination. They can form bridges to connect us and walls that divide us. Words can comfort and isolate, empower and belittle. They can inspire social movements, evoke emotions, and create allegiances. They can help, and they can heal. But like many tools, words can be wielded as weapons to hurt and hinder, and to mislead and manipulate.
Words can have neuroscientific power. Fearful words like “poverty” and “death” can trigger fight-or-flight responses in the amygdala, and negative words like “no” can release stress-producing hormones and neuroreceptors that can interrupt normal brain function. Fortunately, the power of positive thinking has also been validated clinically.
Words are particularly important in law and legal education because lawyers and legal educators are professional communicators. Words are the instrument with which we practice our craft. We use them to teach, to memorialize and share ideas and knowledge, to persuade, to advise and counsel, and to create and destroy.
Words in the form of laws give rights and impose responsibilities. Those words can separate children from parents, imprison people for crimes, and condemn individuals to death. But they can also join people in matrimony, improve safety, and restore freedom.
From day one, we train law students to be precise and to choose their words carefully. We teach them to think critically; to draft and edit and proofread. And then edit and proofread again. We emphasize that one word can make the difference between winning or losing a case or between striking a favorable or unfavorable deal. We demonstrate how framing an issue can impact the result. We critique judicial opinions and dissect statutes. We spend entire class periods debating the meaning of a single word or phrase. We show how labeling—for example, using “undocumented immigrants” versus “illegal aliens”—can impact both attitudes and policy. We teach that words can be used to assault, defame, create a hostile environment, and inflict emotional distress. And we note that the very first amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the use of words: free speech and a free press.
Technology has impacted how we choose and use our words. Social media has transformed local matters into national and international ones. And that ability can tempt people to eschew civil discourse for bombastic language that will go viral. But the sheer volume of words being shared can dampen the impact of any given statement. In addition, language amplified by technology has helped to erode the value of expertise and vetting. These are serious concerns for law, the academy, and society.
For these reasons and so many more, I have chosen “The Power of Words” as my theme. I look forward to exploring it with you during my presidential year and the 2021 annual meeting.