The Power of Words

I’m not a politically-minded person.  In fact, the only way I get much of my news is through the little blurbs on my Yahoo! homepage.  However, the recent tragedy in Arizona surrounding Rep. Giffords – and the corresponding commentary – has me breaking the “thou shalt not discuss politics” rule.

Much brouhaha is being made about things that have been said in opposition to Mrs. Giffords’ political leanings.  They’re claiming that “vitriolic rhetoric” put ideas in the shooter’s head, prompting this violence.  They’ve even mentioned that he read Karl Marx & Hitler, and I’m sure we’re days away from hearing that he also had a highlighted copy of The Catcher in the Rye in his closet.  I personally don’t understand why so much fuss is made over the presence of Mr. Salinger’s book among the possessions of assassins anyway.  Having read the book, I can’t see any connection whatsoever between the annoying petulance of Holden Caulfield, and someone wanting to kill another human being.

I’ve often heard it said that “words are power”, but shouldn’t we draw a line somewhere?  Is it really fair to put such a heavy blame on words, when in truth, each word means something slightly different to each of us?

Case in point: what do you think of when you hear the word death?  Love?  Hate?  How about something even as seemingly simple as red, or blue, or green?  I’m guessing these words will bring a different mental image to each of you.  If we could see an actual picture of what those words conjure in our heads, I believe we’d see varying shades of emotions and colors.  That being said, if I were to say I hate Blockbuster, would I be to blame if someone else took that phrase as something more literal and sinister than the way I meant it, and then blew up the local video rental store?

What happened to accepting responsibility for one’s actions?  As a child, my mother allowed me to make my own decisions from an early age.  However, she always cautioned me that there were consequences for whatever action I chose, and that I would be solely responsible for handling those consequences.  So, if I decided to go outside in the middle of December wearing nothing more than a short-sleeved shirt and jeans, I had no one else to blame when I wound up sick as a dog the next day.

As an author, I concern myself everyday with how well I construct my plot, whether or not my characters are believable, and how well I set my pacing.  That’s an awful lot to keep track of without also having to worry whether or not something I write will be used to concoct a violent act.  Should we blame Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, James Patterson, or JD Robb whenever anyone kills another in a manner suspiciously similar to any of their books?  I think not.

This need to blame someone else for our actions is getting a little out of hand, if you ask me.  Like the hullabaloo a few years back about editing the violence out of old cartoons, for fear that “our children” were becoming more violent as a result of watching them.  Seriously?!  I grew up watching The Bugs Bunny, Road Runner Show.  Every Saturday, I’d grab a bowl of cereal, plop my butt in front of the television, and not leave until a Schoolhouse Rock ditty signaled the end of the program.  Well, okay, I probably got up to run to the bathroom or get another bowl of cereal during a commercial break, but I always made sure to be back in time so that I didn’t miss a single cartoon.

My brother and I watched those cartoons so often, we could quote every line from them.  We knew exactly how the Coyote would fail when trying to use yet another Acme product to acquire his catch.  We guffawed loudly whenever Jerry hit Tom in the face with a frying pan, or when Daffy Duck slammed into every tree in his attempt to prove to the Fat Friar that he was, in fact, Robin Hood.  However, not once did we believe that we could slam into even one tree and come out unscathed and still able to speak (albeit in a hilariously slurred way).  This was because our mother explained to us how those same things would actually kill someone in real life.  She helped us to see the HUGE difference between entertainment and reality.

I’d like to see we as a people start accepting responsibility for our own actions, and not be so quick to point the finger of blame at someone else.  I’m not suggesting that what happened in Arizona isn’t a tragedy – it absolutely is – but let’s give full “credit” where it’s due . . . to the person who actually pulled the trigger, not those whose words are said to have incited his actions.

Thank you for reading.  I’ll climb down from my soap box now.

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19 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Dana
    Jan 14, 2011 @ 09:18:48

    While I don’t think there’s any proof that the shooter responded to anything specific said by one of the media’s current talking heads and yes, the shooter is ultimately responsible for his actions, I absolutely don’t feel we can dismiss the power of rhetoric or the current very irresponsible use of it by politicians and public figures. Hitler came into power partly because of his amazing powers of rhetoric and ability to sway the masses; a very clear example of hate filled bunch of words being spewed out that ultimately caused the deaths of millions. The irresponsible use of words can cause great damage and I feel people that are in the position to be heard by the masses need to take as much responsibility for their deliberate manipulation of the public’s fears and emotions as the shooter does for killing those innocent people.

    And now I’ll step off MY soapbox! 🙂

    Reply

  2. Ken
    Jan 14, 2011 @ 11:15:15

    For someone who aspires to express meaning through words, the obvious seems to have escaped you.

    Dana’s remarks about who is ultimately responsible are totally correct. A mentally ill person has caused great harm.

    Still, we live in a society whose values are created from the power of words.
    But, the words you have used are not even yours.
    You have picked up these words from somebody else, seemingly without much examination. They express very well only part of the story. There is a much bigger picture out there if you care to continue to listen and read.

    Words and images are the basis of the all-pervasive advertising industry whose only purpose is to mold our beliefs and desires.
    Words and images are the basis of propaganda and ultimately form the basis of the relative morality adopted by any group or society.
    Words and images are easily used to express emotion (love, hate, retribution), inspire, and to inform.
    Words and images are the foundation of art.
    Words and images form the foundation of all religious beliefs.

    Simply put: if enough people say it and repeat it, surely it must be true.

    People whose business it is to broadcast images and words while denying they have any ultimate impact are self-contradictory (read: lying).

    Why would you think otherwise?

    Reply

    • Alyx Morgan
      Jan 14, 2011 @ 14:07:01

      I don’t agree with you, Ken, that “if enough people say it and repeat it, it must be true”.

      While I do agree that our thoughts (& therefore, our actions) are often molded by what we hear, in the end, I believe that we are all responsible for what we take to be our own truths, & what’s merely someone’s opinion. Like many parents teach, “Just because your friends do it…” I’m a BIG believer in making choices for myself, & not based on what others tell me I should like/do/watch.

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m in no way advocating the aggressive & hateful words that politicians sling at one another – it’s one of the reasons that I do what I can to avoid it. It just seems to me that finger-pointing doesn’t do any good, other than to say “so & so is to blame for all this”.

      Thank you for posting, & adding your opinions to this debate.

      Reply

  3. Mom
    Jan 14, 2011 @ 12:47:41

    I’m just wondering if you would clarify how you really feel. =}
    I wanted to offer a contrast. I have been very much affected by words from Leo Buscaglia, Kalil Gibran, Ken Keyes, etc. All very positive affects. I credit them with a lot of my growth, but cannot hold them responsible for any of my actions, good or bad. I think we need to take the politicians off the pedestals. Even Ghandi, Mohamed, Allah, were human and erred.

    Reply

    • Alyx Morgan
      Jan 14, 2011 @ 12:54:32

      Good point, mom. It’s never good to place someone on a pedestal, whether they be politician, sports hero, or author.

      Thanx to you (& Dana) for offering opposing views. Debate can be a good thing. 🙂

      Reply

  4. KAth
    Jan 14, 2011 @ 13:38:35

    Alyx,
    I think you nailed it. While words are power, we are not puppets on the strings of anyone’s words. We choose the words we take into ourselves. But we are responsible for what we do with the words. As you said, we take the responsibility.

    As you pointed out about the Roadrunner cartoons, appreciating the humor did not mean I went out and dropped anvils on my little sister. I’m smarter than that. Nor did playing ‘cowboys and Indians’ in imitation of The Lone Ranger or Roy Rogers mean I believed the movie was anything more than playacting/pretend. I certainly did not go into my father’s closet and get out a real gun. Although I did tie my little sister to a tree. Until dinnertime.

    And the example of Hitler’s effectiveness is simplistic. Sorry. But there were far deeper issues in Germany in the 1930’s than one crowd pleaser. You have to reach farther back in history to understand why in that state that man could sway his nation to aggression, and inhumanity. And it was still individuals who made the decision. They bear the responsibility. Hence the War Crimes Trials. If the world did not believe in individual responsibility would there ever have been a War Crime Trial? Remind me, was there a Mien Kampf defense?

    Kath

    Reply

    • Alyx Morgan
      Jan 14, 2011 @ 14:14:04

      LOL, Kath. I’m glad you let your little sister eat dinner. 😉

      I agree with you, that it takes much more than words to accomplish violence like Hitler’s, or the recent gunman’s. I think the problem is that some people WANT to be puppets – or at least, be told what to do – so that they don’t have to make the decision themselves, or accept the eventual responsibility.

      Thank you for visiting & leaving a post.

      Reply

  5. Craig
    Jan 14, 2011 @ 14:27:43

    Good discussion. I also want to add that there are certainly sentiments and perpetuating of fear in the media and public outlets. And I agree with what Ken said, there’s so much propaganda out there, but I personally decide not to listen/watch the news, and am constantly talking back to commercials and advertising to negate their negative effects (did you know that you can now get The Beatles on iTunes?)
    So even though it’s pervasive in the media, you can still choose to a large extent how much you take in, and what effect it’ll have on you.

    Reply

  6. Alyx Morgan
    Jan 14, 2011 @ 14:41:30

    LMAO! Beatles on iTunes?! No way?! 😉

    As for talking back to the commercials…I find the mute button just as useful. That way, I can cut off the blahblahblah before it even enters my brainwaves.

    Thank you for posting!

    Reply

  7. Dana
    Jan 14, 2011 @ 15:01:40

    Unfortunately for as many people who don’t let the media sway our decisions, there are plenty of people who really DO think something is true if they read/hear it on a public forum. And yes, please take politicians off of pedestals…

    The Hitler comparison, while simplistic, is still apt (in my opinion). I actually wrote a term paper on the hows/whys the Nazis came to power in Germany and yes, there were many factors that allowed Hitler’s rise to power, including people willing to listen to and act on his rhetoric and the Nazi propaganda. People also went along out of fear of the SS and retribution. But my point (I meander!) is that without Hitler’s leadership and ability to sway people with his words, Nazi Germany would not have come into being.

    In this country we also have a lot of underlying issues, including a truly frightening divisiveness of political views, with a lot of anger/hate/fear being generated purposefully. So again, while every individual is accountable for his/her own actions/reactions to rhetoric, people who use it to deliberately manipulate the masses should also be held accountable for their part in creating a climate of hatred and fear.

    Stoopid soapbox! 🙂

    Reply

  8. Dana
    Jan 14, 2011 @ 15:02:17

    Oh, and Alyx’s relatives, I adore your daughter so please don’t feel I’m in anyway picking on her!

    Reply

    • Alyx Morgan
      Jan 14, 2011 @ 15:09:46

      LOL Yeah, I began writing this post last Sunday & KNEW it would be a heated debate…again, why I don’t often discuss politics.

      I do agree that deliberate manipulation is unconscionable, & that it unfortunately runs rampant within our politics, media, etc. Just as unfortunate is that, for every manipulator, there are groups of people ready to lap it up as truth.

      & don’t worry about my relatives, Dana. 😉 Even if you were picking on me (which I knew you weren’t), I’ve got a thicker skin than that. If I didn’t, I doubt I’d have even posted this.

      Reply

  9. Dana
    Jan 14, 2011 @ 18:11:11

    Alyx, we are as one with the not discussing politics issue. 🙂 It’s a great topic, though, and one that deserves discussion and thought!

    I just don’t want ’em thinking I’m being mean to you!

    Reply

  10. Ken
    Jan 14, 2011 @ 18:25:45

    There may be some chicken and egg issues here, since you keep going back to “personal / individual choice and responsibility” within the title of your thread about the power of words.

    Your original observations, again, were only a small part of a larger evolving story.

    Much of the original ruckus was caused by a number of people (the local sheriff, some “pundits,” etc.) who had been experiencing an environment, first hand, of threats, intimidation, vandalism, and gunfire. These types of events had actually been happening in Arizona.

    There is some history: The Oklahoma City bombing was ideologically and politically motivated. 9/11 was ideologically and politically motivated. The shooting at a military base a year or so ago was ideologically and politically motivated. Some guy crashed a small plane into an IRS building. What do you think that was all about?

    On and on.

    It happens.

    These people may all have been crazy, but their society / culture / sub-culture created them.

    There was a recent standoff on the Bay Bridge where a gunman was on his way to shoot up the offices of a non-profit in the Presidio. It is claimed that he was inspired by a nationally famous talk radio “personality” who actually discussed the ways to kill another famous American while on the air.

    While there may be no connection between the events in Arizona and any of these environmental / societal / political influences (as information of the shooter’s mental state unfolds, this first reaction has been abandoned by most), the greater topic mixed up in here is “words and personal responsibility.”

    Your example of cartoon violence is a good example where you may have gotten off track. Yes, you can tell the difference between reality and fantasy (because of societal and parental guidance), but what would have happened in your development if you weren’t told these were not valid role models?

    Study cults.

    Culturally sanctioned lynching of blacks existed in my lifetime. Rousing and beating of homosexuals was considered part of proper police activities. “Nigger” and “faggot” were part of the common vernacular. Without words and actions, these behaviors would still exist. Words and actions can bring them back.

    Words and subsequent actions build cultures and societies.

    There are many today who are upset that a black family is living in the White House “sitting on the porch, spitting watermelon seeds on the lawn.” People want to “take our country back.” These people have to choose their words more carefully now, but the meanings are still the same.

    So, of course, you don’t have to act like “a puppet,” (because your parents taught you better, and so on), but the people who are claiming their words have no consequence (and you seem to believe then), are denying their own responsibility and their own intentions, while still trying to pull the strings.

    As a writer, this should be so obvious to you. When you read a story like this in the news, where there are a number of sides and heated issues, try reading deeper and more fully, looking for clues and symbols behind the oh-so-often heated words.

    Try reading more mysteries. The motives for most evil are usually greed, sex, and power. Are any of the suspects telling the truth?

    Be a detective.

    Go figure.

    Reply

    • Alyx Morgan
      Jan 15, 2011 @ 06:30:32

      I believe that “words & subsequent actions build cultures & societies” only if we, as individuals, let them. Even if the atrocities that happened in your youth were to come back just as strong, that doesn’t mean that you have to agree with, or take part in them.

      While I agree that many things in our society can mold & shape us into who we are, I cannot, & will not put all the responsibility on society for the bad things that happen. And while I wholeheartedly agree that what people say holds some repercussions, they’re really nothing more than opinions, & therefore, those people shouldn’t (in my opinion) be held accountable for another taking those words & morphing them into a horrendous act.

      If I were with a group of people & said that one of them was ugly, yes, that crap is my responsibility, & I would owe said person an apology. However, if the rest of the people decided to agree with me (for whatever reason) THAT part is NOT my responsibility. That’s where each individual has to accept his/her own culpability in the scheme of things. & no, I’m not confusing chickens with eggs. The only way any hatred/violence grows to such power in this world is because individuals choose to agree with what’s been said/done. Whether it’s out of fear or not, I believe, is irrelevant.

      I purposefully used my cartoons segue to continue my point, that we can’t blame Warner Brothers for someone watching Wile E Coyote fall off a cliff (& walk away mostly unscathed), & then deciding to try it for themselves, regardless of whether or not that person was raised to know the difference between fact & fiction.

      My mother was raised by people whose idea of parenting went against everything she believed in. Even as a kid, she knew there had to be a better way. She suffered through it until she was old enough to move out on her own, & then she raised me (& for a short time, my brother) in the way she’d always felt was right. There are stories all the time of people coming from poverty, & making a different life. They decided not to let themselves accept their status quo as truth.

      As for me reading deeper into the news stories when they come across my path, no thanks. As I said at the beginning of my original post, I don’t pay much attention to the news or politics. That is a choice I gladly make. I don’t need to be inundated with all the talk of the violence, wars, or hate crimes in order to know they happen in this world. I just don’t feel that they would add much to my life.

      Reply

  11. Ken
    Jan 16, 2011 @ 18:55:47

    While I can’t really disagree with most of your last response, this discussion about the “power of words” seems to prove again how difficult it is to actually communicate meaningfully. You don’t seem to understand much of what I’ve been trying to say.

    So far, this topic isn’t really about politics. This has been about human nature.

    So, let’s try moving this along to the more general idea.

    There’s much more out there on sociology, psychology, and human behavior you can think about later, if you choose.

    At this point, I am just trying to understand you as a writer.

    You appear to have started a blog for some purpose. I would hope you have something to say.

    I believe that as writers, part of our job description includes moving comprehension and understanding. You can either push things along or push things backwards. Or not be involved.

    Again, this isn’t really about politics. We’re not discussing policies or issues. We’re not arguing any particular position here or political point of view. This is about perception and repeating or propagating misperceptions. This is about human connection.

    While I have only “skimmed” the headings of your invitations to visit the topics of your blog in the past, and visited it only just this one time, what am I to conclude is the real purpose of your blog?

    Whatever motivated the event in Arizona, politics and rhetoric aside, this is a major story about people.

    We are people.

    As writers of stories, we should probably assume that all people would not behave as we do. You, certainly, do not act as I would. Life is complicated. Still, we are connected. We interact.

    Is it more accurate for you to say that instead of not liking “politics,” you would prefer to keep things simple and avoid complication and the more nuanced subjects of complex human behavior?

    If you care to look more closely at “politics,” social context and consensus, the real “power of words,” explore examples of “personal responsibility,” “the greater good,” and “it can’t happen here,” consider that for eight years, or so, we have been at war with two nations, been involved with the deaths of a hundred thousand or more, displaced and upset the lives a million families, all while following only the proof of some words.

    And, while spending fortunes, taking questionable positions regarding our own Constitution and international laws and agreements, the majority of Americans thought this was a good idea.

    That is politics.

    Reply

    • Alyx Morgan
      Jan 16, 2011 @ 19:41:12

      I would have to agree, Ken, that I wasn’t discussing politics at all, which is where I may have confused people. What happened was that I saw news blips on the event in Arizona, & the blaming that was going around. That led me to open up a can of worms that has bothered me long before the McDonald’s coffee cup lawsuit brought it to a new light.

      My apologies for indicating that this post would be about politics, as that really is not my bag.

      Reply

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