Performative Language; or, The Magic of Words

I got the idea for this post by listening to Billy Galewood talking about magic. From magic tricks, the talk moved to magic words. An example: saying “I am happy” will make you happier. No need for more, words are magic!

That’s what philosophers call the performative power of language. I’m not an expert on the topic, but it basically means that words carry the power to make something true. When you say “I apologize” for instance, you’re performing an apology at the same time.

I like to take the argument further by saying that a story can change a life, fiction can shape reality. There are numerous examples of this in socio-political matters. Let’s take a common one: the hero and the damsel in distress. The number of stories and tales using this narrative line is humongous. The most explicit ones tend to be made fun of these days, but more subtle ones are sometimes hardly noticed. However, the narrative line is still present in the text and has an impact, although unconscious, on people’s thoughts and behaviors. Which is why women are still seen as inferior to men.

As I said, there are a myriad of other examples, all to do with stereotypes about an “othered” group—a group of people which is discriminated for random reasons dictated by a certain narrative line which dates back to times I don’t even want to think about.

Perhaps the time has come now to notice the randomness of that discrimination, and to use the magic of words in a way that will heal and help instead of harming. Magic tricks are used to entertain and create dreams and wonders. Magic words should have the same power: creating a positive and inclusive image, spreading love through metaphors. Creating love through art.

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