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The Villages
Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Words matter

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place

                                                 George Bernard Shaw

          Words are the most powerful drug used by mankind — Rudyard Kipling

Marsha Shearer

Remember the old schoolyard taunt “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me?” Wrong. Both can do serious damage, with words being the precedent for whatever actions follow. A recent Letter to the Editor by Jay Kaplan, as well as comments to a previous opinion piece, rightly mentioned the words we use as the source of many of our political problems. It’s words, after all, that lead to action—for good or ill. We use words to label. Those labels conjure up meanings, which lead to feelings and emotions—the prerequisites for action.

Let’s take an example from our past, using the conflict that began in 1861 and ended in 1865. There are many names/labels for that conflict that have been applied over the years with The Civil War and The War Between the States being the most enduring. But there are others. What kind of reaction do you have to these labels: The War of Rebellion, The War to End Slavery, The War of Secession, The War for Southern Independence, The War of Northern Yankee Oppression, and this one: The War Against the United States of America. Feel the bile rising? Or your head nodding? Labels matter and can have far reaching consequences. For those who agree with the last label, or at least its essence, then statues to traitors and naming Army posts in their honor or burying them in Arlington National Cemetery is an anathema. To them it would make as much sense as commissioning statues honoring the 9/11 terrorists. The point is that labeling is our short-cut to a long explanation. And these labels result in actions that can have long term consequences. They also explain present day reactions to present day events as a result of labels that were applied long ago.

Another more recent example is how we label 1/6/2021. Was it an insurrection? An attempted coup? An act of sedition? Was it treason? Or, as reported by Politico, on Jan. 7, citing an interview with Donald Trump, was it simply a protest by participants who were “loving and patriotic” and wanted to save the nation.     

Jill Lepore wrote an article for the New Yorker dated two days after the event titled, “What Should We Call the Sixth of January?” She finally came to the conclusion that whether it will be “The Rise and Fall of Donald J. Trump” or “The End of America,” is TBD. The future will decide which title, which words, are more accurate.  Now, almost a year later, there is no national consensus about what Jan. 6 actually was—the end of the beginning of tyranny, or the beginning of the end of American democracy.

Words and labels can stop interaction dead in its tracks or they can enhance the back and forth of communication leading to increased understanding. Words and labels can be used to generate a wanted reaction—to manipulate the listener to act in a certain way. “Stop the Steal” uttered by the Commander in Chief led to an attempt to stop a constitutional process, which led to the deaths of five people and numerous injuries. Some of those following the order to “stop the steal” also left their pee and poop on the walls and floors of The People’s House, according to msn.com in an article titled “Trump rioters smeared poop and urinated through the capitol building.”  Three little words. 

Sometimes it only takes one. Does being called a “Libtard” or “Repuglican” or a baby killer, or a Socialist or a racist or an anti-Semite prevent or enhance communication? It’s the language of division and derision that has resulted in a polarized America that some believe will be “extremely difficult if not impossible” to overcome. The New York Times presented summaries from The National Academy of Sciences, The Atlantic, The Washington Post and others that suggest that we are on a knife’s edge, teetering between majority rule and equal representation for all citizens or “cascading extremism” leading to the end of American democracy.

The year 2022 may well determine which way we will go. So what can we do? Here are some New Year’s resolutions: We can resolve to be vigilant. We can resolve to watch for the signs of threats to our democracy. We can resolve to get involved in helping to assure American democracy and our republic flourish as The Founders intended. We can resolve to begin by the simple act of not using words that negatively label others. Make the argument about “the what” not “the who.” Resolve to get a pocket sized version of the Constitution of the United States and the Declaration of Independence. It’s available from Amazon for as little as $1.99. Read it. Discuss it. Carry it with you. Knowing its content—those words and their meaning—is more important than ever.

In other words, let’s all resolve to be better citizens—active citizens—not just on Election Day, but every day. Be a model. Don’t use words that breed division or shut down discussion and ask friends and family to do the same. That will help make for a more healthy and peaceful New Year and maybe a better future for us all.

Marsha Shearer, Villager and author, is a frequent contributor to Villages-News.com

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