I was picked on quite a bit in middle school all the way up through when I left high school. In most instances, it was the casual cruelty of name calling. There were times when it was more, but for the most part, it was the name calling. The words. Say “Sticks and stones don’t break my bones but words can never hurt me,” all you like. It adds up. It has a dramatic impact on self worth. It’s torturous. From the heightened media attention on school bullying it seems like the national dialogue is finally changing about it. All it took was a few people pushed to suicide for people to start taking it seriously.
See, words do have impact. As a writer, I get that. Words help us makes sense of our world. They help define us and those around us. When you hear yourself called “nerd” and it’s used in a derogatory fashion, you take it to heart eventually. And you begin to perceive “nerd” as a bad thing. Did it fundamentally change who you were? No, of course not. It’s just a label. A stupid, arbitrary label. A meta-tag. We all have them. They grow thicker on us as we grow old. We shrug some off and put on new ones, often ones we choose ourselves. They identify us.
So when someone you might see as an authority figure, be it a politician, “journalist,” or some yahoo in your daily like that you respect for some reason, starts labeling other people, it colors that perception. If they call someone “Evil” or a “Threat” or “Fascist”enough times, you might start to believe them. Whether the label is “Liberal” or “Conservative,” “Socialist” or “Traitor,” you might even start using the same words without questioning the label. And that’s all it is. A tool for us to grab a hold of a concept or person. Shorthand for understanding the world.
A word that, once applied, has consequences.
We’re all guilty of it to some extent. I have been known to rail against people and politicians who I feel are without compassion. I’m human, and I get angry. And I say things that I shouldn’t. I call people names that, while true for me at that moment, don’t generally merit being used as a label by anyone else. I’m careful to not do that in a permanent, public forum. I’m not going to brand someone like that. I will brand them with particularly colorful swear words, however, because those can’t be taken seriously and will generally be understood as me venting my frustration.
What I don’t want to be guilty of is using my platform, however small, to encourage or condone violence against anybody. I don’t want my words, spoken in anger and frustration, to become someone else’s to-do list. Because, and say it with me children, words have power.
What happened today in Arizona was horrible. It was a tragic day for those involved and for us as a country. I’d really like to think that those responsible, both in word and deed, take this opportunity to reflect upon their responsibility to civil discourse. I really hope that the rhetoric can be scaled back on all sides of the national debate. Because we’re going to tear ourselves apart like a pack of wild dogs otherwise. Things are shitty all over the world right now people. If you look closely at world news reports, you can take your pick of incredibly horrible things we’re doing to our fellow man. What happened in Arizona this morning was horrible. But it wasn’t a surprise. This kind of madness has been building for a while. The only question mark was who it was going to happen to.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy is that maybe, just maybe, this could have been prevented if people had taken care to scale back the rhetoric, stop the labeling, and really listen to what they’re saying. Because they have to know that someone, somewhere out there is listening. And they might not see that line between words and a to-do list.
So let’s try this word on for size for the next week and see how it fits, okay?