Words Matter

Maybe it’s just because I’m an English teacher who has taught 1984 one too many times, but I believe that especially in the wake of tragedies like the recent Arizona shootings, we must all consider how actions rise from culture and culture from language. In classroom discussions about why an author would choose one metaphor over another, or how the negative connotation of one particular word affects the tone of an entire poem, my students and I revisit again and again the idea that words really matter, that they have the power to change a message, an atmosphere, a society.

Metaphor is powerful not only in poetry and literature, but in everyday discourse. In the Bible, Jesus uses metaphor to relay spiritual truths. Politicians call on metaphor to place their ideals in a familiar context. Metaphor lends depth, allowing people to relate to concepts on multiple levels. Therefore, I’m not surprised that since the shootings, multiple journalists have criticized explicitly violent metaphors used in particular by Sarah Palin. Though it’s premature and unethical to suggest a direct link between her language and the obviously deranged shooter (David Brooks in the New York Times writes that “political opportunism occasioned by this tragedy has ranged from the completely irrelevant to the shamelessly irresponsible”), it’s important to acknowledge that violent speech can contribute to a violent social consciousness. In her recent video response to the shootings, Palin adamantly demands that “acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own.” Yet we are all products of our environment, and not to think critically about how social forces shape individual actions, our own or others’, is irresponsible. We can’t completely reject the idea that America’s polarized and vitriolic political climate, combined of course with Arizona’s absurdly lenient gun-control laws, could help move crazy thought into tragic action. Martin Luther King famously wrote from the Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” This is everybody’s problem.

My disappointment in Palin’s self-centered response to the shootings and her continued insistence on using incendiary language (in the form of “blood-libel,” a term typically used in anti-Semitic contexts) has nothing to do with partisan politics. Plenty of folks on the right, even direct targets of linguistic criticism, have responded with much more class. Glenn Beck, who has also been pinpointed in some columns as a source of violent language, posted a far less defensive response urging all Americans to abstain from hate-filled speech and action: “It’s a time for us to state with a unified passion that we won’t accept anyone who threatens or actually carries out violence,” he wrote. Fox News CEO Roger Ailes urged his staff, and members of “the other side” as well, to quell any violent rhetoric. “I told all of our guys, shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually,” Ailes said. “You don’t have to do it with bombast.” It would have been nice if Palin, rather than focusing on the way the media had wounded her since the attacks, had instead simply reinforced the importance of “laying down arms,” linguistically speaking– if not because a bitter political climate gives rise to such tragedies, then simply out of respect to the families destroyed by this recent violence. An apology for her infamous crosshairs map or her Twitter slogan against health care (“Don’t retreat; reload!”) would probably have been too much to ask. But if she’s going to use those tactics to begin with, I’d rather have her own them completely than listen as she backtracks on their meaning. Her insistence that “Don’t retreat; reload! is not a call to violence” and “When we say ‘take up our arms,’ we are talking about our vote” sound like copouts to me. Sarah, if you were sitting in my English class, you’d know there’s no such thing as an innocent metaphor. You can’t separate figures of speech from meaning. If you really don’t want people to think in violent terms, why cloak calls to political action with explicit descriptions of guns? Why put people you disagree with in crosshairs?

Speaking of guns– while I don’t particularly love them, I’m not universally opposed to them. My father taught me how to shoot a .22 and my husband hunts. But why is it so easy in the United States for a mentally unstable college dropout to end up with a Glock pistol in his hand? And why does the state of Arizona allow him not only to carry it around wherever he wants but also to do so without a permit? Living in Germany, I don’t run across many Europeans who can even conceive of a democratic society that would allow such easy access to such a pointlessly violent weapon. That a proposal for granting basic health coverage to all citizens was the political event that generated so much trigger-happy political rhetoric in the first place would leave them even more baffled. Then again, a mentally ill person in Germany (along with everyone else in the country) receives guaranteed health care and no Glocks, so no wonder they’re surprised. I don’t appreciate the suggestion that restricting Jared Loughner’s access to a gun tailor-made for mass murder somehow threatens all Americans’ second amendment right to bear arms. It also upsets me that Palin feels criticisms of her incendiary rhetoric threaten her first-amendment right to freedom of speech. As Paul Krugman writes in the New York Times, “The point is that there’s room in a democracy for people who ridicule and denounce those who disagree with them; there isn’t any place for eliminationist rhetoric, for suggestions that those on the other side of a debate must be removed from that debate by whatever means necessary.”

The Arizona shooting has prompted other countries to take a close look at our society; regardless of political inclination, we should too. To do anything less is to dishonor the victims of the violence and to open ourselves to further tragedy.


6 thoughts on “Words Matter

  1. Nice commentary Sarah. (But I guess this means you won’t be inheriting Grandpa’s Winchester that you learned to shoot with?)


    1. Hey Dad, I said I wasn’t opposed to guns as such. 😉 Grandpa’s Winchester will always hold a place in my heart. I’m sure Grandpa too would scratch his head at the way gun violence has been taken to extremes these days.

  2. Hi Sarah
    I certainly agree with your well written commentary.

    But more important ….. I will soon join you in Germany. I’ll be starting early in March with a company in Heidelberg. I am certain we will have a chance to meet.
    My German cell phone # is still valid.

    Take care


    1. Toll, Hans! Is this a permanent move then? As you already know, Heidelberg is so beautiful, and not far from Stuttgart.

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