Only words

Almost no one would dispute that we live now in an age of often confrontational and contentious rhetoric. It has never been more true, nor easier to discern that, like certain body parts, everyone has an opinion. With modern technology, everyone also has the means of broadcasting those opinions. Never has the unity of our common humanity seemed more fragile.

There was, I am sure, a time when people of diverse points of view spoke civilly to one another, even while disagreeing. There must have been a golden era of collegiality where Republican and Democrat (and, Whig) liberals, moderates and conservatives all sat around the big table and reasoned together. It may well have been long ago and far away; perhaps in some hazy, now-forgotten age, but I need to believe there was a shining time when people did not wish bodily harm upon one another over politics, health insurance, or which cola was best.

Oh, I know, I’m a cock-eyed optimist; a foolish believer in fairy tales and just plain hopelessly naive. But I believe in that gilded age where the sound of wailing and gnashing of teeth did not fill the air. Once upon a time, there was a place where wild-eyed shouting was not the norm.

Now, I understand that the folks doing that shouting will forcefully assert several truths. The first is that having and expressing an opinion is a God-given right. This is true, but I believe that God also gave us wisdom, discernment and inside-voices–all of which seem to get far less exercise. Another truth you will hear is that a free society needs all voices to be heard. Again, undeniably true, but I’m sure that society could get even more out of those voices if they could actually be heard over each other’s yelling.

Many will also say that the expression of an opinion is an individual thing and hurts no one. “They’re only words, ” you’ll hear. To those who say this, I have to believe that they are either kidding me or deluding themselves, but they are dead wrong. Words matter. Ideas inspire. Emotion incites. And, more, words and ideas are not necessarily heard and received in the way they were intended.

Once words are in the open, once an idea is absorbed into the public consciousness, we lose our control over them. And, we lose any chance to determine what will be done with what we put into the air. I don’t, however, believe that we cede responsibility for our words and their effect–so we need to be sure.

Even the most sacred and trusted sources can be distorted by the human mind determined to hear what it wants to hear. Everyday, people of all faiths read their scriptures and take away the intended wisdom, guidance and commitment to peace and love that their founders inspire. Many of those readers, though,will read those same words and find hatred and a call to bloody war instead.

I’m not singling any faith group out, either. There are so-called faithful Christians who find support for racial division, exclusion and murder in the diametrically opposed words of Jesus. Muslim extremists find justification for war and hatred truly faithful followers of Muhammad will never find in the words of their prophet. If even sacred words can be twisted, then the words of average people have no chance. Words matter, because we never know how they will be twisted by minds looking for reasons to hate.

It cannot be denied that it is far too easy and common for words to be warped and transformed into something dangerous by those who hear them. We know that far too many people are powder kegs waiting for an igniting spark. We know how quickly an anxious or deranged mind can find the trigger it needs to explode. Words can be spun, ideas can be exploited; sparks will fly, trouble will combust.

I believe in this age of often super-heated, sometimes angry and exploitative discourse, our words have to be used as carefully as any weapon of mass destruction. No world war or militant jihad ever erupted from silence; the fires of conflict burn ideas like dry kindling. And, speaking into a conflict, eschewing reason for reactionary rage, is the same as gushing a volatile accelerant onto an already unchecked conflagration.

Oh, I understand that expressing your opinion is a God-given right. And I know that our Constitution your freedom of speech. I get it. But in this modern age of media multiplicity, everything that is said is captured in a thousand repeated and rehashed snips and clips. Everything spoken lies in storage waiting to be retrieved and reviewed. We will remember who starts which fire. So, think, reason, think again..then engage your mouth. And be sure that you will be held accountable.

More important than discretion and care in the rhetoric of the public square, however, is the absolute need to control our words in the home and within our family. More than any physical harm, more than any other punishment, what we say to each other in intimate situations has enormous potential to cause life-lasting pain. What parents say to children, and how it is said matters. A single word, or the omission of a needed word can scar a child who is loved and cared for in every other way.

We all carry these scars. We have all experienced the casual scorn, disapproval or disdain spoken in a flash of unguarded emotion. Sadly, many of us have in turn passed along painful little moments to our own children. Words have the power to destroy and once uttered cannot be recalled. They careen like jagged shards of shrapnel, in countless directions, tearing holes in the esteem of our victims.

I know I am as guilty as any. As a clever person, proud of my quick wit and possessed of an unfortunate instinct for the jugular, I may be more guilty. Scoring the point has often been more important than considering the outcome. Getting the laugh overruling the price someone else will have to pay. As with many aspects of character seen with new eyes later in my life, I’m not proud of what I see. I am trying harder. I am attempting to be more conscientious. I’m not near to perfect, but I am trying. All part of the slowly evolving show of me.

Let’s strive for open communication and a forum of shared ideas without recourse to venom and conflict. Let’s live in a world where we respect ideas and the people who have them. Let’s create a golden age of getting along.

Words matter. They can be dangerous things. Use them wisely.

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6 Responses to Only words

  1. Gary John Reynolds says:

    George Orwell, whose books illustrate the way in which popular buzzwords and catchphrases have the power to legitimize double-talk, said:

    “… if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
    George Orwell

    “Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper.”
    George Orwell

    “… the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
    George Orwell

  2. George Orwell was a cynic (or a realist?) apparently, but he understood the power of language and the impact of ideas better than most, obviously. Thanks for bringing this to the conversation, Gary.

  3. Len Strazewski says:

    Since I have been managing an academic department for the past few months, I’ve had to discipline myself to actually think ahead of speaking–quite painful. One of my former colleagues and academic mentors actually remarked on it and said that I speak with a different sense of timing and intonation.

    She says I pause briefly before I speak and speak “decisively” rather than sarcastically. Don’t know if it will last but it is different.

    • You’ve been teaching for many years, Len. My guess would be that this new-found gravity is part of process that began the first time you stepped in front of a class. Obviously, your students don’t find you to be a sarcastic presence–at least not so much so that they cease to find it entertaining. Thanks for joining in.

  4. Kevin Lennon says:

    As I recall as a Poli Sci major the old schoolers (Tip O’ Neill and Ronnie) would chew each other out in public and then have a few quaffs for civility purposes. If any of the (mostly) stuffed shirts now get together it must only be for a fund raiser or some other publicity event. Sad, but true. Hoping Charlie Crist becomes 3rd independent in Senate as it might start a trend of removing party power.

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