The Michelle Carter Case Tells Us Words Are Never Just Words

June 12, 2017

“It’s not like I actually did anything” isn’t an excuse.

As someone who publishes on the internet on a regular basis I get all kinds of comments, ranging from supportive to actual death threats. Anyone with so much as a Facebook page knows how this goes, though. From relatives to random trolls, we often find ourselves the victims of “just words.”

And I put the above in quotation marks because the Michelle Carter case tells us pretty definitively the ways in which words are almost never just words.

The case has made headlines again: the judge in the Carter case has refused to dismiss the charges.  There are a lot of things working to make this case atypical. There’s the fact about how there’s no indication she technically committed a crime. If we prosecuted every person who said “go kill yourself” on a YouTube video we wouldn’t have any space left in prison. This is discounting the thought of the suicide being her boyfriends’ idea in the first place. Another complication is how Massachusetts has no laws against assisted suicide should that be the case.

Carter didn’t actually kill her boyfriend by action. That’s not in dispute. What’s on trial here are words.

And there are plenty of people willing to defend hers. “She didn’t actually do anything,” they insist. “She just sent him some texts.” The implication being if he chose to do anything because of those words, the guilt of those actions fall solely on him.

So let’s talk about some times where I’m sure these people would absolutely agree too.

Charles Manson absolutely just used words when he told Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian and Patricia Kenwinkel to “do something witchy.” Yes, he told them to commit murder, but he didn’t do it himself. He’s clearly innocent of any and all crimes against the Tate family.

Fascist groups like the KKK are infamous for telling their followers to go and commit crimes to “cleanse” the world. Everyone would agree no KKK leader is responsible for the atrocities committed, right? So long as they didn’t actually pull the trigger themselves, it’s fine. They’re just words, after all.

Putting the legal argument aside for a moment, we all know words aren’t just words. Words hurt just as much as a punch to the gut if they’re aimed right. I’ve gotten my fair share of hateful comments from people who either forget there are real people back here writing these things or just plain don’t care. I understand what it means to hear a hurtful comment from a loved one on a topic that means quite a bit to me. And I know what it feels like to be called names and bullied in school.

Words hurt, and words can drive us to action. They can drive us to harm, both ourselves and others.

I don’t know what the legal outcome of this case will be. I don’t even know what it should be. There are a lot of nuanced pieces here and a lot of things we don’t know yet. But I do know that the argument “words are just words” is pure garbage. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can still absolutely hurt us. And make us hurt others.

Image via AP.

Comment: Do you think Michelle Carter should be held responsible for her boyfriend’s suicide?


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