When I started this blog, I had no reason to think that I would keep making posts that have been, at their core, about the power of words, bullying, and emotional violence towards ourselves and towards others. But a quick survey of my first posts sure do seem like I’ve got my teeth into something and don’t quite want to let go.
As someone who’s been a target of nastiness on and off the Internet because I’m terrible at keeping my head down, this preoccupation is hardly surprising. But the truth is that I’ve been talking about these issues because of my own propensities for cruelty, not just, as I’ve already written about, towards myself, but also towards others.
It is, frankly, hard for me, because of my own insecurities, to be happy for others when they succeed in fields of endeavor that I also pursue. It’s far, far far too easy for me to think that should have been me and then dwell on why I think someone doesn’t deserve success or why that success isn’t all that. It’s a nasty vicious habit, even when indulged in solely in the privacy of my own skull, and one I’m committed to stopping in myself and in others. What is, after all, the cost of more joy?
We seem to be, and in fact I can only now hope, at a moment in our society wherein we recognize and address the power of words. Teen suicides in response to anti-gay bullying, a phenomenon that’s been going on for years, are finally getting media attention. Conversations like It Gets Better have led to broader discussions of bullying behavior, as well as the tenor of Internet discourse on both news sites and social networking venues. There is, in my own reading of this coverage and discussion, a sense of understanding that has seemed absent in the past that words have consequences.
Today is one of those days where words have had consequences, horrific ones. A gunman shot 19 people in Arizona, killing 6, including a 9-year-old girl and a federal judge. A congresswoman is in critical condition after sustaining a bullet wound to the head. At this moment little is known about the shooter, although his online writings have surfaced. Those writings do not reflect mainstream opinion of any major party and are also hard to make grammatical and logical sense of. However, law enforcement officials have disclosed that they feel the shooter did target the congresswoman explicitly.
That, even as an act of a lone individual, makes today’s tragedy, among other things, an act of political violence. And that act of political violence has occurred in the midst of rhetoric that has been extraordinarily heated.
Now, to be fair, heated political rhetoric isn’t necessarily anything new. And the use of metaphor, especially war metaphor, for political combat is also nothing new. And I hesitate, always, when I find myself making any argument that speaks out against metaphor. I’m a writer; I love metaphor; metaphor is an awesome tool. So is, to be frank, the power of rhetorical extremity — it’s the difference between “sometimes I think my mother never loved me” and “my mother never loved me.”
But words have consequences. And when political violence has occurred (and let’s be clear, by the way, that political violence occurs every single day in the US, it occurs, among other occasions, every time someone is assaulted for their race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity), we must pause to consider the consequences of our rhetorical flourishes.
Sure, rational people of all political persuasions can probably agree that Sarah Palin’s crosshairs graphic wasn’t meant to actually advocate shooting people. We’re probably also all relatively certain that Sharon Angle wasn’t advocating an actual armed insurrection when she discussed the possibility of a “second amendment remedies.”
But violent rhetoric does have consequences. It ups the stakes. The metaphors that enrapture supporters for their linguistic art or demographic cleverness and are meant to encourage proof of loyalty through campaign contributions and peaceful activism also make room for other, misguided, proofs of loyalty at the fringe. Yes, without violent political rhetoric, political violence will still happen. But with it, each of us who engages in it, and stays silence in the face of it, bears some fraction of culpability for the political violence that emerges from the climate we have fostered.
Words have consequences, and so each of us walks this world with the extraordinary power to hurt ourselves, our loved-ones, our peers, strangers on the Internet, and our broader society. But, of course, and we hope more importantly, we also have in our words the extraordinary power to advocate for civil discourse, the democratic process, love, and possibility.
So don’t advocate political violence. Speak out both when people you do and don’t support engage in rhetoric that you feel thrusts us into a climate that allows even those at the fringe to view acts of violence as legitimate expressions of loyalty or dissent. And accept that a panoply of opinions defines not just our society, but also any sub-grouping of which you may also be a member. (To be extra clear, this isn’t about restricting speech or the idea that some words or expression should be banned, this is about think about what comes out of your damn mouth before you say it and when you see crap that you think is toxic speak the hell out about it.)
And on a smaller, more private scale that has nothing to do with politics but certainly everything to do with how we live now? Try allowing yourself more joy for the successes of others. Your mileage may vary, but for me, it’s proving to be a path to being gentler, not just with other people, but also with myself. And that’s lovely; no matter how wounded I have been, I never, ever want to be the worst bully I know.