Paul Atreides knew words could kill, and harnessed their power to save the planet Dune. But some people aren’t so noble.
In Dune, the 1984 movie adaptation of the classic sci-fi book, Paul Atreides knows the power that words have. In the movie (but not the book), his people use devices called Weirding Modules to literally turn words into weapons.
By speaking certain words into the device, people can generate a devastating sonic blast. Most words are innocuous. Maybe they just don’t carry enough emotional intensity. Actually, very few words are known to trigger the device, but they discover others when training the Fremen people to use it.
One soldier makes the innocent mistake of calling Paul by his self-chosen Fremen name, Muad’Dib, while holding a Weirding Module. Paul is as surprised as anyone else when his own name triggers the device, collapsing part of the ceiling. “My name,” Paul thinks to himself, “is a killing word.”
Can words have the same kind of power in reality? After all, we’re told that “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But can’t words do a little more than sticks and stones?
The harmful effect of words might start off small. Someone is told that they’re stupid, or ugly, or they can’t do anything right, and maybe it doesn’t seem like a big deal. But when they hear it enough, they start to believe it.
And when people believe that something is wrong with them, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If they’re having a bad day and something goes wrong, they think it’s because there’s some truth in what the other person said. They think they deserve it, so they feel worse about themselves. And they pass this feeling on to other people.
It’s not even necessarily the words themselves that do the damage, so much as the way they’re said. When someone takes a word with no inherent negative connotations (such as the name of a religious or ethnic group) and uses it in a negative way, people hear the hate.
Other words are specifically meant to do harm. Several groups, including the Special Olympics, have started campaigns to ban the R-word, as it’s now being called.
Can words kill? Absolutely. 11 year old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover hanged himself after classmates repeatedly called him “gay” in a derogatory way. It’s unclear whether he actually was gay, or whether he was even old enough to know.
13 year old Megan Meier hanged herself after several people created a fake MySpace account, pretending to be a 16 year-old boy who told Megan “The world would be a better place without you.”
In middle school and high school, Seung-Hui Cho was teased for his social anxiety and speaking disorder. People told him to “Go back to China” (he was Korean). As one classmate said, “There were just some people who were really cruel to him, and they would push him down and laugh at him. He didn’t speak English really well, and they would really make fun of him.” Cho went on to kill 32 people plus himself in the Virginia Tech massacre.
Words have more power than you think. Is it really so hard to use them to help rather than harm? For some ideas, watch this: