Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Power of Words

With the heightened rhetoric that's being flung about so carelessly these days, I've been thinking even more than usual about language. I love words, their etymologies and their power and I consider myself fortunate to have been able to edit several word/language books during my days in publishing. One of the things an editor learns early is how much it means to use words correctly and in their proper context--that it is imperative to understand the many varied meanings and connotations before committing to a word in ink on a page.

1st Amendment rights are an integral part of American society and coveted by citizens in many other countries around the world. But with the freedom of speech (as well as assembly, press, etc.) comes the responsibility to speak thoughtfully--to consider the possible reactions or outcomes to what you say. There's a reason that you can't yell FIRE in a crowded theatre: the reaction would be terror on the audience's part and the outcome would be a stampede to the exits, likely killing many in the melee. Understand that I'm not talking about being politically correct (PC) here, or having to speak in circuitous euphemisms, that's ridiculous. But I feel very strongly that there are a lot of people--media types, commentators, radio personalities--that use words without considering the consequences. And yes, sometimes there should be consequences.

This isn't about barring Kanye West from award shows (though maybe that should be a nota bene for any event planners for the next few months) or asking protesters to consult a dictionary before inking their signs. (Though again, I think that's a good "note to self" moment.) If you exclaim, during a speech, that the President of the United States is lying, there should be consequences. This isn't Britain and that wasn't a session of back-benchers question time. If you have to be asked/told to apologize, well, I think perhaps you should reassess and take a moment. Apologies don't fix everything, but they are surely the only way to start back down the road to civility. A simple "I'm sorry" goes a long way toward starting the discussion in a new direction.

And a note to a few talking-heads out there: when you use words like crusade, revolution or re-founding it is tantamount to inciting people to violence. Healthy debate over policy differences or how to approach a problem is one thing, but personal attacks, using hot-button words that frighten and rouse a small, but vocal part of the populace is irresponsible and quite frankly, insane. The baseness of most of these attacks--monkey and witch-doctor comparisons--is something out of the darkest days of the antebellum South. I think most of us believed those sentiments, for the most part, had died out a generation or two ago, but apparently not. And by the way, those repulsive sentiments have nothing to do with actual policy or legislation. It's not a policy debate--or healthy conversation--when stereotypes, threats and violent language are employed. It's a mob. And while I know many are proud to part of that mob, I think it's shameful and inexcusable to behave (and condone) that sort of mentality. I also suspect that the aforementioned talking-heads realize full well what their words are doing and how destructive they are, but they (a) actually want to provoke that kind of mindless furor and (b) enjoy seeing the sway they hold over their listeners/followers. This is low-brow fear-mongering is some of the most dangerous rhetoric out there.

A funny (not funny ha-ha, either) sidebar to this is the idea that being smart and using words well is somehow akin to not being a "Real American." That because I have a grasp of history, politics and American English that I'm not a real enough American. I'd argue that using words and language appropriately is most American--think about great wordsmiths like Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin. Taking that a step further on the critical thought spectrum, understand the context in which their beautifully crafted essays and broadsides were created. Using the words of our great "men and women of letters" out of context shows ignorance and weakens your argument as the people who actually know the context and meaning behind what was said will not be moved by ill-advised attempts to misuse language in support of a cause.

At the risk of being accused of trying to indoctrinate anyone, read. Read and read some more. Learn about your opponents and their policies so that you can speak intelligently about why your way is better or why their policies aren't going to help as many people. Simply labeling the other side fascist, socialist, or any other "ism/ist" is a little disingenuous unless you yourself really understand the fundamental tenets of those movements and are therefore able to make a fair contrast/comparison. Personal attacks garner nothing...when you sling mud, you generally lose ground.

My mother, who works with Special-Ed kids daily, has long talked about learning to disagree without being disagreeable. And that's the key to raising the level of discourse today. Disagree, but don't be disagreeable (or worse!) Realize the power of your words to persuade, to influence, and to inspire. Words have always had great power--think of RFK's many speeches; or a perfectly constructed paragraph in your favorite book; or the best lines from your favorite movie. We remember words. And childhood rhymes aside, they not only hurt, but they can do serious damage. To be taken seriously we must use words judiciously and with the full knowledge of their power. Choose your words carefully...

No comments: