It’s a lie. Words do hurt. Words incite hatred. Words incite violent acts.
Words are my stock-in-trade, have been for many years. They’re the tool I’ve used to craft manuals, scripts, corporate policies and procedures, online help files and any number of other types of written communication. Now I use words to craft stories for children — by far my favorite use for them.
Rhetoric is assembled from words. “Rhetoric” is defined (Merriam Webster online dictionary) as “language that is intended to influence people and that may not be honest or reasonable,” and as, “the art or skill of speaking or writing formally and effectively especially as a way to persuade or influence people.” “Influence people” — that’s key. "May not be honest or reasonable." That's key too. Since President Obama was elected we have been subjected to a constant stream of rhetoric from right-wing organizations, politicians, commentators, and media outlets that describe him as a “traitor,” a “muslim,” “incompetent,” a “liar,” “corrupt,” “socialist” — those are a few of the tamer words. Words wrapped in rhetoric and framed as the truth. This disrespect shown to our president is unconscionable. If you don’t like his politics, that’s one thing, but personal attacks with no basis in reality are another. When the White House launched the @POTUS twitter feed it rapidly filled up with hate-filled messages, such as those that called him a “monkey” or showed a picture of him with a noose around his neck. Incendiary rhetoric can lead to incendiary attacks.
This week a horrendous act of violence was perpetrated by a young white man in a church in South Carolina. He murdered 9 black people — shot them in cold blood. By his own admission the act was one of racism and yet we have public figures falling over themselves to claim it as something other than that. The ugly truth is that we are a racist society. We can’t sugarcoat it and we shouldn’t look away from it. Words fuel that racism — words used in the ugly rhetoric of white supremacy, words used in the bland utterances of politicians too cowardly to admit the truth. No Rick Santorum, this was not an attack on faith — it was an attack on black people.
Words can be used as a weapon. They don’t kill as quickly as guns — they take a little time to marinate and simmer before they boil. In the sad aftermath of the Charleston shootings I ask all of you to examine your words. Are they honest and reasonable, or hate-filled and ugly? We can do better. We must do better.