The Weight of Our Words

Two seemingly unrelated events in the news combine to illustrate the significance of choosing carefully the words we use to make our points.

The mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., caused a lot of discussion about the tone of political discourse in the United States today. While I don’t believe the gunman committed his despicable act directly as the result of fiery rhetoric, I’m convinced that the environment in which our discussions take place has contributed to a more hostile society. And I believe politicians, cable TV and radio personalities, people who spew hatred via social media and even some clergymen birthed this toxic condition and feed it with their daily infusions of vitriol.

We consumers of mass communication are complicit, too. The Glenn Becks and Keith Olbermanns of the world stay in business because of us. We are the reason they’re unlikely to change the tone of their diatribes anytime soon. They’re in a contest to see who can out-zing the other and many of us are on the sidelines, egging them on, all the while boosting their ratings.

A related event in the news is the decision of a publisher to release an update of Mark Twain’s classic “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” that replaces the offensive word nigger with the supposedly more acceptable slave. The argument goes that a cleaned-up version of the book will free it from banishment in school libraries across the nation and open it up to a new, more sensitive and politically correct audience of students.

Subjecting Twain’s masterpiece to editing 125 years after the fact robs Twain of his creative license as an artist and robs the audience of its freedom to either choose or reject Twain’s message. More than that, it represents a total misunderstanding of Twain’s statement in support of human dignity and the personal growth that can happen in the hearts of even the most ignorant people (Huck, not Jim).

Each event demonstrates the weight of our words. Those who participate in the heated political rhetoric of our day have little to no appreciation for the power of words. They don’t think through the consequences of what they’re saying and they can’t see the destruction their words are causing. Those who would edit Huck Finn also have little to no appreciation for the power of words. They don’t understand that Twain was deliberate in his choice of words as a reflection of the society of his day and a reflection of the prejudice in people’s souls.

Words carry a lot of weight. That weight can either crush us with its impact or it can make us stronger as we lift words to a higher purpose.

RELATED UPDATE: In a CBS News poll, 57 percent of respondents said they don’t believe heated political rhetoric was a factor in the Tucson shooting. Of course they don’t. It’s like asking a drunk, “So, do you think your drinking has anything to do with your life being in a shambles?”

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