The power of words

Thanks to Mr Donald Trump, a new phrase has become commonplace lingo around the world: locker room talk.

It was the defence espoused by the Republican candidate for the American presidency earlier this month, following the release of an unbearably lewd Access Hollywood tape, which featured him explicitly boasting about sexually assaulting women.

Last week, his 38-year-old son, Mr Donald Trump Jr, added salt to injury by calling locker room talk a "fact of life".

"I think we all probably know guys who have had conversations with guys who go a little bit in that direction," Mr Trump Jr mansplained on a radio show. "That's a fact of life."

Now let's for a moment (very generously) give both Trumps the benefit of the doubt - that what Trump senior was saying were just words and that he might not have acted on his lecherous thoughts.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

The question then becomes, are words ever just words?

Perhaps it is because I am a journalist and a voracious consumer of words that I find this argument completely indefensible. But even if you do not craft prose as an occupation, it is hard to deny the power and weight that words hold.

The lexicon we use forms the building blocks that construct our reality - it is the reason and source of implicit biases we create in our lives. Deflecting it as "just talk", as Mr Trump and his son have done, can make potentially harmful language seem harmless.

The inherent problem is that many people do consider the idea of locker room talk a fact of life - part of an unspoken alpha code.

When the women are out of earshot, it suddenly becomes acceptable to take off the shackles of politically correct speak and veer into lewd bro-banter.

Words create worlds. And words spoken - whether in hushed whispers to a single other person or over a loudspeaker to thousands - carry the same weight.

What we say influences the way we think. And our minds then influence our actions.

As a woman, I have faced numerous instances of harassment and objectification. I can assure you that every woman has her own story.

I have also watched from the sidelines as men objectify other women - as though engaging in banter like that lets them break into the old boys' club. Indeed, on occasion, I have even been the subject of the objectification.

Undeniably, there are plenty of people who take great offence at such speak and are courageous enough to make their opinions heard.

But then there are those who laugh along - just like former Access Hollywood host Billy Bush did - in a desperate bid to fit in. Worse still are those who stay silent entirely.

Here is my plea to men and women alike: Do not be these people.

Do not be so desperate to fit in that you do not account for the damage your words - or your silence - can have on other people.

Every time you shrug off your buddy's crude tales about his exploits, you become complicit in his objectification.

You give him the green light to assume that his language and thoughts are okay.

And every instance a woman is objectified, it gives her another reason to see herself as an object.

It is not enough to believe in something if you swallow your words when they count the most. Neither is there any pride in going along just to get along.

Words can either be bullets or seeds. Use them carefully - to build people up, not tear them down.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 30, 2016, with the headline 'The power of words'. Print Edition | Subscribe