Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Our words matter to those who hear them

The Christian Science Monitor reported Wednesday that, as more becomes known about Jared Loughner, the desire to blame “vitriol” for Loughner’s actions has lessened. I’m disappointed in that.

The CSM says it’s too easy to blame the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords on angry, violent language and imagery in the political arena. One concludes from reading the article that Loughner was determined to kill somebody that day and Giffords’ shopping center town meeting offered lots of targets of opportunity. Giffords was targeted, all right, but Loughner was driven to kill by the demons in his head, not by half-witted right-wing bombast (the notion put forth by some right wingnuts that the “left owns Loughner” is pure bullshit, and I won’t say any more about it.)

We don’t know what drove Loughner to hate as he does, and we probably never will. But to pooh-pooh the idea that the violent rhetoric of radio crackpots influenced his willingness to point a gun at a congresswoman’s head and pull the trigger is too easy, too. Those who know more than I about human behavior have long ago determined that haters don’t start out hating, they’re taught to hate. Yes, Loughner probably suffers from some mental unbalance, but no one can say for sure the he wasn’t influenced by the internet and broadcast haters. Words, read or spoken, have power, they are the signs we use to communicate ideas and emotions.

As a lifelong student of language, I learned long ago that words matter. I teach my composition and news writing students that words have connotations that are often more important than their denotations. Saying that a political party was "targeting" a congressperson is different from saying the party was "concentrating" on a particular race. A target is something that is shot at, whether by bow, gun, or spitwad. The verb "to target" means to take aim prior to shooting; that's the root and foundation of all other connotations of the word. People use the word "target" as a verb because they want to sound aggressive, they want to sound like they mean business. There is an emotional reaction to the word, and that is why it is used.

If someone strongly opposes a piece of legislation, they can say, "I will work very hard to defeat that legislation" or they can say "I will fight tooth and nail to kill the bill." Too often, politicians have been reaching for the more aggressive phrase as they try to convey their (supposed) emotional investment in getting done whatever it is they want to get done. They know emotional words evoke emotional responses in their constituents and in each other, and that is why they use them. Unfortunately, it also escalates the anger in people who actually would like to physically clobber some thick-headed liberal or kidney-punch a loudmouth tea-bagger.

Fighting actions do come from fighting words. No one is more passionate about the innate human right to express one's self than am I, but I believe it would be a wonderfully responsible thing for our elected representatives in Washington to spend the next several months deliberately toning down their warrior-talk and speaking more like the statesmen and stateswomen they were elected to be. Unfortunately, that won’t happen, and the CSM article makes it clear that politicos are already using evidence of Loughner’s mental illness as an excuse to exonerate themselves and return to their emotion-grabbing vitriol.

Violent talk by public officials has made it somehow more acceptable for ordinary folks to unleash their rage on the public. Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, emails, text messages, and the hundreds of thousands of personal blogs that are released for public consumption every day are peppered with outbursts in which people express a desire that someone else die. How to deal with North Korea? Call for assassination of the country’s leaders. How to cope with a liberal black man in the White House? Express the hope that he suffers a fatal affliction. Someone breaks into your house or steals your car? Suggest that they improve the world by committing suicide.

Posters of such drivel almost always cover themselves by trying to mask the comments as humor: “It was just a joke, I didn’t mean it.” That is as nonsensical as when politicians excuse their “targeting” imagery by saying, “It’s not personal, it’s just rhetoric.” It isn’t “just” rhetoric. Words matter. Words convey ideas. It is one thing to have a private thought about someone – to imagine a human being’s head with a red dot on it, for instance – but quite another to express that thought in public. Such expressions do not advance the cause of civilization, they are not satirical, and they are not fit for public discourse in any arena.

It is time to advance beyond the use of violent speech and writing in the civic discourse of the day. If we are to survive as a civilization and not just as a country, we need to learn how to express ourselves clearly and peacefully to our fellow humans. We must take responsibility for what we write and what we say in public, and that means learning how to be a little introspective.

I don’t expect it to happen any time soon.