Photo by Kyle Glenn
One of my fondest memories involves my “Papa.” If there was not a football game on the TV, Papa had a book in his hand. While the other grandchildren played, I would sit at his feet and ask him to recount his current novel’s plot points. “What’s happening now, Papa?” Even before I could read, I had visited places unleashed by the imagination of James A. Michener, Robert Ludlum, and many others.
Words are in my DNA, but I’ve learned that they can do more than entertain and put food on the table. Words can impart information, give us a sense of purpose, and draw communities together. When the right words come together, we bask in the opportunities and liberties they create. We build our lives on the idea that words, such as those written in our Constitution, are trustworthy expressions that protect us from injustice and inequality.
The reality of such assurances, though, isn’t as concrete. More and more, we are living in a world where words are used to puncture and annihilate. How did we get here? How do we pull back from the sort of attitudes that cripple our potential? What are our options when words fail to be used to educate, to lead, to honor, to enrich, or to heal?
Unfortunately, how we got here cannot be summed up in one instance, or by one individual. The truth is that somewhere along the way, our society got lost or deceived itself into believing that words that are spoken in jest, or cyberspace are harmless. We allowed these attitudes to erode our decency and compassion. Sentiments hidden behind retweets, hashtags, and social media handles gave the illusion of limited accountability and minimal bloodshed.
In 2010-2011, we watched the power of social media support the Arab Spring, but somehow our society still failed to be outraged by the falsehoods and racism spread through the same social media platforms here at home. Somehow, we got stuck on the idea that while the words were terrible, they didn’t actually have the power to impact our future.
Fast-forward to 2020.
If this virus has accomplished anything, it is this—speaking without insight or actual knowledge is destructive. It leads to misinformation, fear, conflict, and unnecessary death. These things are no longer hypothetical. We have seen the repercussions of them in every nightly news report as the increase in COVID-19 cases hogtie our economies, overwhelm our hospitals, and deprive us of our loved ones. While this pandemic was always going to be damaging, it is the cavalier approach by those with influence and authority that continues to invalidate our needs and cost us our security for the future.
The responsibility to measure our words does not stop with politicians and business leaders. From the bullies on the playground to the images we create in our entertainment to the way we wield our authority in the home—our words can be a tool, or they can be a weapon.
Our society has reached a point of no return, each of us must decide now if we are going to use our words to speak the truth, defend the innocent, create something beautiful, and nourish the world around us. Or, will we use our most powerful freedom to cut, devour, or undermine others’ human rights? Will we support those who believe words are weapons, truth is flexible, and expressions of compassion are signs of weakness?
The wildfire of bitter, divisive speech does not have to consume us. We can decide how things go from here. We can choose to reject anything that is not based on verifiable facts or contributes to the unjust, cruel treatment of others. We have a voice that matters, and words that can change the world.