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"… in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent…"

The Power in Words

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“I have a dream today.” Martin Luther King spoke and a nation listened, began its slow march to change. His words spoke not of new ideals, new ways to approach life, or anything of the sort. His words merely echoed those that had already been put to paper, in the Constitution of this nation, in such a way that they would be more easily understood, and could absolutely not be denied. The purpose for Dr. King’s speeches could be easily summed up in the words of Thomas Jefferson, speaking to the purpose of the Constitution: “Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent…”

These are two men separated by nearly one-hundred fifty years, and yet they both understood that words had the power to change the world. One crafted the birth of a nation that would go on to be the greatest power in the world, the other charted a course for the liberty of an entire people. Both commanded the attention they needed to achieve their goals through their words.

Robert F. Kennedy was set to give a campaign speech in Indianapolis the night Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis, Tennessee. Instead, it fell to him to announce the tragedy to the gathered crowd. He did, at great personal risk to himself, and went on to speak eloquently about the need for understanding in the United States, the need for everyone to make a greater effort. As riots raged and fires burned throughout most of the major cities of the US that night, as all across the country frustration and bitterness swept up into the dangerous realm of hate, Indianapolis was quiet. The power of Kennedy’s words, beautiful and wise beyond what the moment should have allowed, brought some measure of solace to the aggrieved, and hate could not stand against it.

When Ronald Reagan stood before the Brandenburg Gate and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” the world listened, and later a wall that had for so long divided fell. The power in his words, their strength along with the unquestionable right in them, changed the world. And yet, when Reagan spoke at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, of the tragedy of all the lost life there, the words of another penetrated his otherwise impervious demeanor. As the Republican president read the words of Anne Frank, “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe people are good at heart,” his voice faltered, overcome by the profound meaning in the words of a young girl: faced with even the worst hatred, which destroyed millions of lives, hope still lived on. And those simple words moved a man who would dare to topple a great symbol of oppression.

The hatred that claimed the life of Anne Frank and millions of others whose only crime was to exist, was born in the twisted mind of Adolf Hitler. Today, only the most marginalized sections of society would openly embrace Hitler’s doctrine, but in the first half of the twentieth century he’d built an empire that took a great alliance of nations to defeat. He did not do this by hiding his beliefs, by hiding the awful truth of what he wanted to achieve. Instead, he used his great power for words to convince others, a great many others, that their neighbors were inferior to them, and that their very proximity was a threat. The heartless executions of nearly twenty million men, women, and children could never have been carried out by one man alone, no matter the depths of his evil. Instead, powerful words of hatred shaped the hearts and minds of a great many people to believe there was some noble purpose in the most heinous acts.

Words have forever changed the course of the world, for good and ill. They have moved nations toward progress as well as ruin, moved people toward freedom as well as destruction, moved individuals to stand as beacons of hope for order in the world, or as agents of its demise.

It is with this knowledge that I have to question why, in the wake of our latest national tragedy, the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the deaths of several innocent bystanders, those who spread the rhetoric of hate and divisiveness have been given a pass. There is absolutely no way a person can say anyone’s words inspired Jared Loughner to do the horrible thing he did, but for any and all criticism of hateful rhetoric to be shoved aside, for the media to allow such criticism to be branded as nothing more than political attacks just as hateful in their own right, is a travesty. It is acceptance for corporate-sponsored hate speech.

Today, political pundits are available to audiences twenty-four hours a day. They appear on cable news around the clock, they harp on talk radio for several hours a day, and they blog online. They are more readily accessible to the public than our leaders, and their words travel farther, faster. They must be held to the same standard for the consequences of those words as the men and women they decry on a daily basis. If confronted with accusations of bias, any pundit will fall back on the defense that they are not newspeople, and thus are not held to the same standard. As such, they should not be granted the same freedom of the press.

Some would say this is an issue of free speech, rather than press, but I don’t think it applies here. A man is allowed to say whatever he chooses to say, so long as it doesn’t endanger anyone. Nobody is allowed to shout “fire” in a movie theater, because it puts people at risk in a panicked situation. Too, while a man certainly is allowed to voice his beliefs, no matter how twisted and hateful they may be, the first amendment does not grant him corporate-sponsored means to spread his hatred.

When, following the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, Rush Limbaugh said the Democratic Party “… openly wishes for such disaster in order to profit from it,” he made a conscious decision to forego benevolence in favor of belligerence, to continue his ongoing message of divisiveness, the “us versus them” mentality that RFK so eloquently decried as wasteful and beneath us. And the outcry against his message never came.

Glenn Beck has called the President of the United States a fascist, a communist, a socialist, and said that the beginning of his presidency was reminiscent of Adolf Hitler. He’s said that Democrats and liberals want to come into your home and take your guns away from you. He’s said that people have to stand up and resist these efforts. It’s not hard to see how, subjected to these messages five days a week, for the several hours a day Beck is on radio and TV, someone who is even only a little unbalanced could be moved to believe there would be cause for them to do something terrible. And yet, any mention of this in the public discourse is immediately shouted down as politically motivated.

Sarah Palin wrote in an e-mail to Beck, “I hate violence. I hate war. Our children will not have peace if politicos just capitalize on this to succeed in portraying anyone as inciting terror and violence.” Those words are not a condemnation of dirty politics or hateful rhetoric, not a call for people to join together for greater understanding. They’re a political defense. Six people lie dead but she did not call for reason in the political debate, dared not admit that some tactics in the political realm go way over the line and that it may help some already disturbed people justify awful actions. Instead, she looked out for her own political image and future, because that’s how we pay respect to the dead in today’s world of politics.

Words have always had great power, and always will. We must hold ourselves responsible for the consequences of our own words, and too I think, we must hold public figures responsible for theirs, because they will clearly not shine that divining light upon themselves.

I choose not to accept words of hatred, not to allow them into my heart. And, because of that, I choose to end with another passage from Anne Frank’s diary.

“I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness. I hear the ever-approaching thunder which will destroy us, too. I can feel the suffering of millions, and yet if I looked up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty, too, will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

Eight months later, Anne Frank was killed, but in her words lies the dormant hope in us all, waiting to be awakened, that things can be made better, that good can win out over evil, and that understanding can overcome hatred. From words, hopeful or hateful, unifying or divisive, action is born.

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One Response

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  1. I enjoyed every bit of the post on ‘power of words’, though with some political undertone. Yet our words can alter the world we live in for good or evil.

    Samson onyeka

    October 10, 2011 at 1:08 pm


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