Thursday, August 25, 2005


On The Power of Words

Words don't wound, do they? "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me", right?


In a part of the world where incitement to violence is a regular event, David Bogner reminds us that words can kill.

We've seen our own version of this recently, in the form of an unsubstantiated Newsweek article that enraged Muslims the world over, and saw over a dozen people dead before it was over. People thought that they were rioting over something terrible that had happened -- but because the story they had been told was a lie, they were rioting over words... and people died because of words.

As David reminds us, that sort of overheated rhetoric is sometimes called 'vitriol'. This was an old-fashioned word for sulfuric acid, which was used as a weapon in medieval times -- thrown into a person's face, Vitriol could blind, and would certainly blister and scar, causing permanent disfigurement. And our words today are potentially just as damaging. How many people have had their lives, or their careers, destroyed on the basis of a rumor, or a sentence? Ask Trent Lott; ask Richard Jewell; ask Jeremy Boorda.

Please remember this, when next you hear someone cheerfully using over-the-top rhetoric.* We can call ourselves fortunate that, in the United States, that sort of speech rarely has adverse consequences. But we must never forget that, historically and geographically, we are the exceptions, not the rule.

Words have power, and we have a responsibility to choose our words carefully.

* If my limited choice of examples doesn't appeal to you, try this. Oh, and by the way, I found my examples by doing a two-word Google search. (You can figure out which words; I won't use them here.) Try it yourself... and then substitute "Kerry", or your favorite example of someone Republicans love to hate, and see what Google matches you get.


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