An American Editor

February 1, 2011

Do Words Matter?

I know this is an odd question to ask of editors, but the recent hullabaloo regarding the vituperative exchanges from the far right and the far left and their influence in the recent Tucson massacre brings this question to the fore yet again: Do words matter?

To listen to the pundits, the Tucson incident and statements by people like Sarah Palin have little to no connection. I suspect that there is no direct connection, but I’m not sure that one can so easily dismiss responsibility for incitement or for creating the conditions under which deranged minds would think such actions are expected and normal.

Let’s go back in time — not very far — to the summer of the debate over the health care reform bill. Sarah Palin declared that the health care bill would create “death panels.” Forgetting about the falsity of her charge, consider only the import of her description. The name was chosen because of the image it would send: of doctors deliberately withholding treatment from grandma in order to kill her and save taxpayer dollars.

Similarly, go back a few more years and consider how conservatives described the estate tax as the “death tax.” The implication was that every citizen’s estate and family would have to pay a tax at death, yet the reality was (and is) that it would apply only to multimillionaire estates or less than 3% of U.S. citizens.

And consider what we do as editors and authors. Do we not evaluate words and try to choose words that convey the message we want to send clearly and directly? Do we not try to minimize obfuscation? Isn’t the difference between a great author and all other authors how the author has used words to craft a “spell” over the reader?

If words do not matter, then why mischaracterize end-of-life options as death panels intended to kill grandma or estate taxes as death taxes applicable to all Americans rather than to the wealthiest few? What these slogans demonstrate — and demonstrate forcefully — is that words do matter. That the choice of words has consequences, both intended and unintended.

Which brings us to the question of responsibility. Should we not hold those who utter the words responsible for the consequences of their words, even if the consequence was unintended? I’m not talking about criminal-law-type responsibility; I’m talking about a moral responsibility. I don’t doubt that Sarah Palin didn’t intend for someone to murder a congressperson when she put up the map with crosshairs, but should she not have thought about the people with access to guns who would look at that as an invitation to justifiable murder?

If words do not matter, then why is the right-wing so upset with being charged with complicity in the Tucson shooting as a result of their incendiary invective? The answer, of course, is that words do matter, just as tone matters, and the one thing that every American can say without contradiction is that the political discourse in the United States has become a bitter lake of violent, hateful words.

Every time I read or hear someone say we need to return to our original founders for guidance, to original intent, I think “nice words that are being spouted by someone who doesn’t understand what they mean.” Our original founders founded the United States by political compromise, not by diktat. Yet those who seek to implement original intent pronounce that our founders were united in single beliefs.

We need look no further than the question of whether we are a Christian nation. Note that none of the founding documents call us a Christian nation or refer to Christianity. In fact, the original constitution was barely passed and was passed only after it was agreed that the first 10 amendments would be added, of which the first amendment talks of religious freedom, not of Christianity. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and others were not Christians as current people would have us believe. Franklin was an atheist, Thomas Paine was an atheist, Alexander Hamilton was an atheist, Jefferson and Washington were deists — not one of these founders insisted on America being a Christian nation.

So does it matter that the constitution doesn’t call us a Christian nation? Yes, it does matter, because words do matter. The choice of words that our founding fathers made had consequences — then and now. John Hancock made it clear that he endorsed the word choices — and the consequences that flowed therefrom — made in the Declaration of Independence by boldly signing his name. His is the most legible of all signatures. Hancock understood that by signing the Declaration it was tantamount to a declaration of war and he stood by his word choice.

Yet politicians of all stripes today, but even more so on the right than on the left, dismiss responsibility for their word choices and the consequences that follow. It is always someone else’s fault, someone else’s responsibility. It sure would be nice if those who wish to lead us today could show the leadership skills of our founders, rediscovering both the art of compromise that enabled the United States of America to become a single, independent nation, and the willingness to take responsibility for their words and actions. Alas, I fear that today’s “leaders” really have no vision grander or broader than their own wealth and well being and that the lessons they should have learned from our founding fathers will be left on the ashes of Tucson.


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