Saturday, January 8, 2011

Words Have Consequences

We think in words. Words and symbols.

We feel in words and symbols.

We perceive the world in words and symbols.

Often we don’t realize how our view of ourselves, of other people, of what is normal and what is not, of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable are all shaped by the words we hear, the symbols we see.

The feminists in the 1960’s understood that. That’s why they insisted on nonsexist language: mailman to mail carrier, chairman to chairperson.

Abe Pollin understood that in 1997 when he changed the name of his Washington, DC basketball team from Bullets to Wizards. The word bullets sent a message, however subtle: Guns are OK. Bullets are OK. Shooting people is OK.

Sadly, some politicians still don’t understand.

Putting a person in your “crosshairs” sends a message. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords  was one of the legislators featured in a map put up by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin targeting members of Congress who had voted for the health care bill. The opponent Congresswoman Giffords defeated held a campaign event described with the words, "Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly."

Today Sarah Palin has posted on Facebook that she is praying “for the victims and their families.” She doesn’t see the victims as her victims. I don’t imagine Jesse Kelly feels responsibility for them either.

But words and symbols shape our thoughts and feelings, our view of what is right and what is wrong. Words and symbols have consequences. I’m sure Sarah Palin and Jesse Kelly meant to inspire their supporters to campaign hard, to get out the vote. I’m sure they never meant to incite them to kill.

I’m sure they felt that no rational person would take them literally.

But our words go out to the rational and irrational alike.  Once printed in a newspaper, once posted on the Internet, we have no way of knowing who they will reach, who will take them as justification for murder.

Please: No more words that incite to violence. No more symbols that incite to violence.

No more guns. No more targets. Never again. 


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