Toxic Rhetoric

Our Word Arsenal

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 Jared Lee Loughner is crazy. He’s the one who pulled the trigger in the Arizona shooting that killed six  people and shot Senator Gabrielle Giffords.  Sarah Palin, the Tea Party and right wing bullies didn’t pull the trigger.

However, we must remember that bullets don’t come from guns alone. Words and images also hold a certain firing power, especially for those vulnerable and volatile individuals who are mentally ill. 

Words do make a difference. As a former middle school teacher, I know that the language I used as a teacher and the way I delivered this language made a difference in how my students responded.  The words and delivery that parents say to their children make a difference too.

Think about it. Here are possible parent-to-child words...two different approaches:

 (a) "Again! What makes you do such stupid things all the time?"

(b)  "I feel bad when you act without thinking about how it will affect the rest of the family.  "

How many parents have ever, in frustration, said to their child, “I’m so angry I could kill you!” Most children understand the context of that phrase and know it is not to be interpreted literally, but maybe we should re-think the violence in our off-hand language.

Words and pictures may not kill but they can put ideas into minds of the vulnerable. Bill O’Reilly verbally attacked George Tiller (“Tiller the Killer”), a doctor who was gunned down because he performed abortions.  Unstable individuals sometimes act from words they have read and, in acting on them, believe they have the backing of important people who  have uttered those words.  

Sarah Palin is not directly responsible for Senator Giffords fight for life in the hospital now. But she is responsible for using language and images irresponsibly. Crosshairs targeting “Gabby” Giffords did not pull the trigger literally, but it has the potential of pulling the mind trigger in the mentally ill. 

An argument might be made that we can’t base all our speech on the potential for how it might trigger others. I say, we can be more aware and moderate with what we say and how we say it. As a middle school teacher, I did this all the time because it made a difference. 

Language can pull the symbolic trigger under certain circumstances.  Maybe we should do more thinking before we speak.