The Power of Words

“You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.
Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen,
do not incur sin because of him.
Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Leviticus 19:17 – 18

“The scream of the twelve-inch shrapnel is more penetrating than the hiss from a thousand Jewish newspaper vipers. Therefore let them go on with their hissing.”
― Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

“Love is the bridge between you and everything.”
― Rumi

“You will not replace us
Jew will not replace us”
― white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, Aug. 11, 2017

“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
― Ernest Hemingway

“When you see these towns and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough, and I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice’ … Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over, like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody, don’t hit their head, I said, ‘You can take the hand away, OK?’”
― U.S. President Donald J. Trump speaking to a group of law enforcement officers, July 28, 2017

“Cultivate peace and harmony with all…”
― U.S. President George Washington, Sept. 19, 1796

As a writer, by definition I traffic in words. Like all writers, I write to make an impact. I want my words to educate, or inspire, or entertain, or to create emotional reactions. These are every writer’s goals; if you’re not attempting to do one or more of these things, why bother? Writers do what they do to change the reader’s or listener’s experience.

Events over the past several years have often caused me to reflect on the power of words. The quotes above send distinct messages. Some are messages of violence and hate. Others profess peace and love. I find the verse from the Book of Leviticus especially powerful because so many choose to cite that book’s admonition against homosexuality as justification for oppression of the LGBTQ community. Those who do so overlook the verse I quoted.

Contrast the quotes from the first president of the U.S. and the most recent president. Washington spoke of peace and harmony; Trump spoke of roughing up criminal suspects. Look, I’m as susceptible to human emotion and tendencies as any other guy; if I were to be in a position of authority over someone suspected of committing a violent crime, I would certainly be tempted to lash out. That’s why the U.S. is a nation governed by laws, not one governed by the emotions of weak men. Washington appealed to what his fifteenth successor called “the better angels of our nature.” His forty-fourth successor appealed to our blood lust.

The dictator who forever shamed the great people of Germany spewed poisonous words against a scapegoated minority. The goons who sought to intimidate the people of Charlottesville last weekend echoed his vile words. Hemingway offered a devastating response to the supremacists by reminding us that we are all works in progress, painstakingly trying to improve ourselves in the face of our human tendencies toward laziness, animosity and resentment. Rumi spoke simply about the great things that love can build.

What we say and what we write matters. My words can be cruel or compassionate; they can spread anger or understanding; they can create division or strengthen bonds. The choice is mine.

So much of the political anger in America today can be traced back to something someone said in a speech or wrote in a comment posted in the heat of the amount on the Internet. Each side points to the other and exclaims, “They started it!” And both sides are right. And both sides can end it.

If Heather Heyer’s death is to have any meaning at all, let it remind us of the power of words in our lives, our society, and our country. And let it inspire us to use those words with care so that one day we can look back on the ugliness of the Charlottesville riots as a relic of a less-civilized age.

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2 Responses to The Power of Words

  1. Very well said Tim. I vacillate between allowing someone to have the rights to free speech against the right not to have to hear it, especially when something like this past weekend comes into play. Strangely enough, a lot of these negative actions have created some positive words and actions over the last couple of days. It’s not the way anyone would have wished it but sometimes we have to take what we can get. Too bad Heather had to pay the price for taking positive action.

  2. Tim Dodge says:

    Thank you, Mitch. Sometimes the worst of events bring out the best in people. We saw that after 9/11, Katrina, Sandy, et al. What happened to Heather Heyer, though, was a tragedy. She was a brave lady.

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