Words may never hurt me?

Anna Mitchell
Anna Mitchell

When I was in middle school, I had a blog that was brimming with teenage drama. On days when my angst was particularly strong or personal I marked my blog posts as “protected,” meaning they were viewable by me and only me, and secret to the public eye.

I was shocked when one day I was confronted for some things that I had written in my allegedly private online diary.

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The mother of a classmate was fixated on the idea that I was out to somehow harm her daughter. She paid the blog company money to have access to my postings – including the supposedly private ones – and then printed off and highlighted a copy each for my school counselor, the local police, another classmate’s mom, my personal therapist (who she somehow tracked down) and my mother.

At least half a dozen (though probably more) people, mostly ones that I barely knew or didn’t know at all, read each and every one of my extremely personal and intimate thoughts. I had never even gotten a detention, and suddenly I had a file at the police station. At 13 years old, this was an extremely traumatizing and violating experience.

Even if something you say isn’t put into the public sphere by being posted on a website, it can still reach an unexpected audience. Last year a cover letter written by an NYU college graduate that was riddled with egotistical boasts and grammatical errors was endlessly forwarded to just about every investment banker on Wall Street, ensuring the closest he will ever come to working in the financial district will be as a barista at the nearby Starbucks.

In the age of instant information, nothing you say is private. This requires modern rhetoricians to be wiser about what we say. Yes, we have freedom of speech and that is a beautiful right. But with rights come responsibilities. We are devastatingly in need of more self-censorship as a society.

Most 20-somethings can say that the age-old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” was dispelled when we were kids. We were taught about the harm we could do to others when we said hurtful things and bullied them.

But we weren’t really taught the damage our own words can do to us. Sure, we were told that sexting was bad, and that telling strangers on the internet where we lived was dangerous. But a shallow list of rules doesn’t delve into the complexities of how what we say can have severe and lasting consequences. As youths we are told “don’t,” a solution that is passive in nature. But we are not taught how to actively protect ourselves.

This is done through self-censorship.

Words have lasting, material consequences. Call me overly-pragmatic, but I believe this to be a tenant to live by. Paula Deen lost her butter-soaked empire because of using the “N-word” in the past. We are our own worst enemies.

Where does that leave the CSU community?

For starters, recognize the harm of things like CSU Confessions. Not only is it a platform to say troublingly vicious things to and about other people, it is a way to trick yourself into feeling that the best way to express yourself is with the safety of supposed anonymity. The truth is, in extreme scenarios a post could be traced back to the original poster if someone really wanted to find it. More generally, “anonymous” platforms of expression are simply unhealthy. Try talking to someone who is professionally trained to help you work through what weighs you down. Don’t disassociate yourself from your experiences and feelings – it’s important for your psychological health to feel safe owning up to who you are and then to grow from that.

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Try taking advantage of services like the Career Center’s advising sessions on writing cover letters and resumes. There’s a lot of terrible advice on how to do this, and that advice can lead to sounding like an overly-egotistical jerk who doesn’t proof his work. Not every employer is rude enough to forward a bad cover letter, but you simply don’t know what people will do with your words once they are expressed.

There is no insurance that the things you say won’t turn against you. You are your own best line of defense.

Anna Mitchell is no longer a teenager filled with angst. Love notes and hate mail can be sent to letters@collegian.com