There are a lot of words being tossed around these days – words about words and how much power they possess. Our political culture is rife with angry, volatile, hateful words. We are surrounded by them… they assault our ears and our eyes, our hearts and our minds… every day. And there is much debate going on about whether or not those angry words contributed to the violence we saw expressed by a mentally disturbed man in Arizona last weekend.
I don’t have the answer to that question. None of us does. No one but the person who committed the act knows what affected him and what didn’t.
But here is what I do know: Words ARE powerful.
I saw a comment on a friend’s Facebook page yesterday… it was similar to comments I’ve seen all over the Internet in the past few days. The commenter said, “I don’t believe, in any way, that anything anyone says can make a person commit a crime.”
In my opinion, anyone who truly believes that knows nothing about human nature at all. Nothing.
Some time ago, I did a blog post about why I write. It began like this:
“I write because I believe in the infinite and unassailable power of words – to connect, to affect, to express, to entertain, to disturb, to discover, to educate, to enlighten, to excite, to incite, to soothe, to solve, to illuminate, to inspire. “
“…the infinite and unassailable power of words…”
Words ARE powerful. They have elected leaders… they have begun wars and inspired peace… they have caused and ended family feuds that lasted decades… they have created and soothed great pain.
Words ARE powerful. Anyone who thinks they cannot incite violent behavior – or behavior of any sort – is blind and foolish.
Ask any boy who’s gotten into a fistfight on the playground because he was called ‘chicken.’
Ask any guy who’s been punched in the mouth for insulting another guy’s girlfriend.
Ask any 17-year-old who’s used the words ‘I love you’ to get his girlfriend to consent to sex.
Ask any young girl who’s heard the words, ‘you’re fat’ or ‘you’re ugly.’
Ask any child whose mother said, ‘You ruined my life. I wish you were never born.’
Ask any woman who’s believed the words, ‘I’m sorry’ after being abused by her partner.
Ask anyone who’s heard, ‘I forgive you,’ when they believed they were unforgivable.
Ask anyone who’s been told, ‘I just don’t love you anymore.’
Ask anyone who’s heard, ‘It’s YOUR fault,’ when it wasn’t.
Ask any parent who chooses his/her words carefully, so as not to deflate a little one’s esteem.
Ask anyone who’s ever been affected by a book, a poem, a letter, a speech, a song, a comment.
Words ARE powerful.
We constantly quote and re-use words from the greatest speeches and speakers in our history. Leaders have used words since the beginning of time to rally, to call to action, and to inspire positive, progressive movement. How many times have you heard, ‘I have a dream…’ or ‘Ask not what your country can do for you…’? And for every tragedy we face as a people, it is the words spoken immediately in the aftermath which bring us together.
So how can we doubt, even for a second, that words can affect us negatively, too? How can we think that words will have no effect on the behavior of the people around us?
Words ARE powerful.
I believe that everyone is responsible for his own actions. The man who shot all those people in Arizona last Saturday is responsible for himself, to the degree that his mental condition allows. We are each responsible for ourselves – for our actions and our words. And I truly believe that holds true, to an even greater extent, for the people leading us – those in office; those who would like to be in office; and those who speak publicly about them. They KNOW their words are important… they KNOW their words are powerful… it’s precisely WHY they choose the words they do – to inspire belief, emotion, and action.
Free speech is part of the foundation of our nation, our government, and our society. I wouldn’t want it any other way. But free speech isn’t really free… it comes with a price. And I believe that price is responsibility. I believe strongly that our leaders and media need to be responsible with their words… they need to understand that simply because they CAN say something, it doesn’t mean they SHOULD. They need to understand that the images their words convey WILL affect people – both positively and negatively – so they need to choose those images and words very carefully. They need to be responsible for THEIR words and actions, just as we do. And when they’re not? They need to stand up and say, “I could have done better.” It’s the very least we should be able to expect.
Because words ARE powerful. Never doubt it. Not for a second.