Why Words Matter

I have been thinking a lot lately. 

As you probably know, a gunman recently took aim on a crowd of people in Arizona.  It seems that his intent was to hurt the Democratic senator who represented that district.  Along with wounding her, he killed 6 people and wounded 13 others.  This is not news.  Surely, we all know this.

What has happened since has been a national discussion about the words that we use and hear on a daily basis.  This conversation has been fierce and many people have thrown in their two cents.  Some are pointing fingers, some are taking part in the blame and some are blame shifting.  This is happening on both sides of the left-right spectrum.  Many are suggesting that the gun and war metaphors that we hear on a daily basis from pundits, politicians, friends, co-workers, and family members are perhaps influencing culture and action.  More specifically, they suggest that the gunman in Arizona was in a fragile enough mental state to hear people talk about “targeting” congresswoman Gifford and take it literally.

In ancient Assyria, the region was prone to violent flooding and natural disasters.  So, the Assyrians developed a pantheon of Gods who were consistently fighting, angry and competing.  This eventually influenced the people to have violent expansionist tendencies, being known for their ruthlessness and blood-thirst.

In Egypt, where the Nile rose and fell predictably year after year, a pantheon of benevolent gods were created which were helpful to the people.

In Greece, where men worshiped mankind, a pantheon was created that was very human like and had normal relations with humans and other gods.

The Israelites when they were adrift in the desert had a god that lived in a tent, called the tabernacle.  Once they settled down in cities instead of moving around all the time, their god desired to live in a house as well so they built the temple.

In his book On Writing Well, William Zinsser discusses his time on an advisory board for a new dictionary.  One of his many tasks was helping to decide which words were to go into this new dictionary.  In the 1960s many things were going on in culture that were changing language.  Words like “escalate”  and the word “trigger” as a verb came out of the Vietnam War as did the word “regime.”  He says there came a time when they had to vote on the word “dropout” for someone who quit something.  This was only an issue because so many kids were quitting school to fight in the war or to join various movements.

Culture is influenced by language.  And language is influenced by culture. 

Many Christian songs in the 1960s and 1970s used the word “awesome” to describe God.  We still sing a lot of those songs today.  If we’re not still singing those songs, we are singing songs by people who listened to those songs and still use the word “awesome.”  When we think of what God is like, I would suggest that many of us who are in current Christianity might use the word “awesome.”

We influence words and words influence us.

In the book 1984 George Orwell discusses what happens when words with one meaning are used to hide the activities of a certain organization.  So, the place where you are taken, tortured  and interrogated is called the “Ministry of Love.”  In his now famous essay “Politics and the English Language”  Orwell talks about how clutter can confuse the listener.  Often times this leads to an intentional vagueness that the listener is too confused to pick up on.  This essay is dusted off time after time when the powers (usually the military) “tell” us what they are doing. 

Words can take on meanings of illusion in the world.  When the Department of Defense has spent the majority of its time on Offence, making love is usually just sex and when you “run to the store” in your car, words take on new meanings. 

A few years ago a senator visited a high school in her district and took some questions from the young minds in the audience.  Scribbled on a note card the senator read the question, “What is Government if words have no meaning?”  The senator was Mrs. Gifford, the same woman still clinging to life in an Arizona hospital.  The person who wrote the question was the shooter, Jared Loughner.

I think his question was a good one, though maybe not appropriet for the setting.  I think that he was touching on the same issues that Orwell was discussing.  Intentionally blurry and often not what they seem at all, how can we trust the words that we hear and the things we are told?

Words do have meaning.  They do communicate.  Culture changes words and words change culture.

In 1998 and 1999 two high school shootings took place in Jonesborro Arkansas and Littleton, Colorado.  In each situation the shooters had numerous instances of saying threatening things to peers and teachers.  All were swept under the rug and ignored because everyone says, “I’m going to kill you” at some point.  After that, teachers became much more serious about kids saying things like that.

Recently, there has been a number of kids who struggle with homosexuality who have found the constant taunting and threats of physical violence too much to handle and have taken their own lives.  It wasn’t looks of disgust that did this to them.  It’s words of hate, anger, threat, violence, disapproval and friendlessness. 

The words of others affect our behaviors and thoughts.

In his book Blink Malcolm Gladwell talks about studies which show the power of words in our lives.  It has been tested and shown that if you ask someone to read a passage about an old person, they’ll walk slower for a while.  If you ask someone to read a passage about a child running around, they’ll walk faster. 

Words influence behavior.

Sam Harris describes Buddhist monks who are interned in Chinese torture camps.  Upon release, sometimes after twenty years of torture, they come out saying things like, “My greatest fear was that pain would turn into hatred for my captors.”

In 2006, a gunman walked into an Amish school house and killed 5 girls and wounded 5 more.  The Amish community responded with a great amount of love toward the shooters family.  All accounts say that his family was swarmed with love and that the Amish community were the majority of attenders at the man’s funeral.

If you don’t entertain thoughts of violence–if they are not part of your culture–you aren’t likely ro resort to it when the time comes.  Even in your heart.  Because hatred is violence without physical aggression.  It is still violence in the heart.  You’ll respond the way that your culture tells you to respond. 

“We need to put the guns down.  Just as importantly we need to put the gun metaphors away.”  This is Keith Olbermann from MSNBC talking about the words we use. 

“The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous and unfortunately Arizona has become the capital.  Arizona is the Mecca of prejudice and bigotry…That may be free speech, but it is not without consequences.”  – Sheriff Clarence Dupnik at a press conference about the condition of those in the shooting.

Do you hear what they are talking about?  They are talking about words:  Angry images, war metaphor, hatred, bigotry, prejudice.  All of these are words.

We need an overhaul of our vocabulary.  Words influence us, so we need to be more conscious of the words we take in, as well as the words that we put out.  We need to mind how we are influenced and how we are influencing culture around us. 

People are people, not “targets.”  Dead civilians are dead civilians, not “collateral damage.”  If you have a problem with someone, you have a problem with them, you can’t “hate them.”  You cannot wish them harm.  You cannot want bad things to happen to them.  You cannot gossip about them or try to bring their image down to those around you. 

When you dehumanize someone, that is the first step down a long path.  When a person stops being a person and starts being a Democrat, a Republican, a Gay, a Fag, an asshole, a Jew, a Nigger.  Pretty soon it is easy to expand your hate and dehumanization from one person to a whole group–Liberals, gays, whites. 

When people stop being people and start, instead, being words, then it is easier to justify bringing harm.

Some places and some people use war-like words to compel us against our dehumanized groups. 

“The gays are attacking the American family.”

“The niggers are stealing our jobs!”

“Mexicans are crossing our borders.

“Communists are the enemy.”

“Sadam Hussein is evil.”

Sadly enough, war metaphor is very common in Christianity.  How could it not be?  It started in the Bible with a people living in a military state.  Later, under Constantine, Christians enjoyed the driver’s seat and they remained a military state, then the Holy Roman Empire, then Catholicism and now America.  Christianity has always been linked, and sadly mostly supportive of the military state. 

 This works its way into our pulpits and our faith.  Christians always lean toward the militaristic party.  Manifest Destiny is about getting west no matter the cost.  And now political belief, Christian duty and our responsibility to each become entangled and we get messages from our pulpits that reduce people to words and give us military metaphors to tell us what we should do.

“Republicans want to give everyone a gun and put them in a militia”

“All gays are going to burn in hell.  They’re attacking your family.” 

“Blacks are the remnant of Cain, and their after your white daughters.”

“Communists are all evil, and they are infiltrating this country as we speak.”

“The liberals all want us to give up god, our guns and our freedom.”

“Democrats want to take your hard earned money and give it to lazy (understood “black”) people.”

“The abortion doctors are murdering your neighbors, grandchildren, and friends.  It’s a holocaust.”

“Them damn Yankees want to take your God-given property.”

When you 1) dehumanize someone and 2) insert a military image it becomes hard for some to say anything but, “I have to fight back.”

I am guilty of this.  Just today I said about a certain professor that “I hate that asshole and want to kick him in the nuts.”  Though it’s funny I have done both things here: dehumanized him and fantasized about causing him bodily harm.  Often times I sat idly by as someone in chapel railed against “liberals” or “post-moderns” each time thinking, “Does he know that’s me?”

I know I am proposing a pretty large over-haul in our vocabulary.  Cutting out violent metaphors from my life as well as my tendency to categorize and label people is very difficult.  It will be extremely difficult to do this for our entire nation.

Is it worth it, do you think?  To change everything about the way that we speak so that we can avoid this kind of violence from a nut job every once in a while? 

I bet the families of the dead and wounded would say it is worth it.  I bet Iraq would be for it. 

Culture affects words and words affect culture. 

Imagine how our culture could change if we stopped acting so threatening all the time.  If we cut out our war metaphors as a people, what would that do to our economy?  Our nation?  Our world? 

Perhaps if we stopped talking so violent we’d stop being so violent.  Perhaps if we stopped being so violent we’d stop feeling like we needed to protect ourselves.  Perhaps the Department of Defense could start being a Department of Defense. 

Idealism.  I know.  How about I just try to do my part.

I don’t have any blame to hand out.  I don’t think that one side is any worse than the other.  I know there are some people that do.  I am sure that if it had been a Republican congressman and not a Democrat there’d be just as much finger pointing in the other direction.

I think we can all list things that probably weren’t helpful.  I think we can all agree that for anyone to publish a website with cross-hairs on anyone else is in poor taste.  I am sure we would all agree that this is a much larger issue than just one person or just one party.  It’s a humanity problem.

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About coleyoakum

My name is Coleman Yoakum. I am formerly a student at Harding University. Today you can find me in Detroit Michigan doing what I can to expand the Kingdom of God and preparing to start an intentional community in Pontiac. I enjoy reading, writing, photography, music and politics. I am sure that all of these things will find their way to this blog from time to time. Twitter: coleyoakum Facebook: Coleman Yoakum Email: coleyoakum@gmail.com Flickr: flickr.com/photos/coleyoakum/

3 responses to “Why Words Matter”

  1. Matt says :

    Wise words, Coleman.

  2. Larkinatory! says :

    I agree with you that it IS a humanity problem, and NOT just one person (Palin). I also think you’re right about people wanting to place blame. It’s only natural for us to want to find an “answer” to why stuff like this happens, and its no big surprise that she was targeted (there I go! Man thats hard to STOP!) for her words, that I suppose were irresponsible.

    Thanks for writing this… and generalizing it to a humanity problem instead of just a Palin-problem. We do need to stop talking like this. I will try to be better, my friend! Love you.

  3. coleyoakum says :

    Right, Palin is not the reason for the shooting. No one person is. She, along with the rest of us, share responsibility. I will suggest that some of us have more work to do than others.

    I have a lot of work to do.

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