Words matter. As a writer, they mean a great deal to me personally. I have managed to earn a living by stringing a great many words together and creating enjoyable stories. When spoken by someone in authority, they can mean a great deal to many people.
This is something I learned growing up, and recent events have reminded me how important they are and the harm they can cause. Words can inspire and move entire populations into action. They can unite a nation under the banner of a common cause, or tear it apart with divisive rhetoric.
I’m going to share a story with you, because that’s what I do. When I was young, I overheard my father talking about drivers creeping up on his bumper in traffic. My father was not a man to take well to insults, real or perceived. We’re talking about a man who strapped a .38 revolver to the handlebars of his motorcycle to discourage others’ poor driving habits.
In this instance, he said, “When someone crawls up my ass on a hill, I roll back and hit them. If they complain, I just tell them my truck has a manual transmission and rolls back when taking off.”
I’m a child. My father and his words mean a lot to me. Fast forward in time some ten years later. I’m in my pickup, on a hill, and a woman gets right on my bumper because she merged from across the street and didn’t want to block the turn lane.
Being my father’s son, I perceived an insult. She was crowding my space. What did I do? I rolled back, of course, and tapped her bumper. She took issue, followed me into the gas station, and let me know how she felt about my actions.
What did I say? “Sorry, my truck has a manual transmission and rolls back when taking off.”
Was I full of shit? Of course I was. I did it on purpose. We both knew it, but what could she say? Why did I do it? Because of my father’s words all those years before. I had been taught that that is how you handled that specific situation.
Words matter, and when they come from someone you look up to, they matter a great deal. President Trump (I’m not making this political, I promise) said he would like to beat the crap out of people interrupting his campaign speeches and that he would pay the legal fees (he didn’t) of anyone who did. What happened? People took it as permission to behave horribly, just like I did when I rolled back into that woman’s car.
I was reminded of this by a conversation I recently had on Facebook. Someone was complaining about the football players taking a knee. He agreed that they had the right to kneel just as he had the right to hurl batteries at them from the stands. No. Sorry. You do not. One is a harmless expression of dissatisfaction of a perceived social injustice. The Other is assault and battery. Hell, it’s assault with a battery.
He said he wouldn’t actually do that, but does that mean it’s OK to say it? Remember, words matter. Sure, he probably doesn’t have the authority or popularity to move people into taking action, but it only takes one person to read that and think, “Hey, that’s a good idea.”
We press upon the importance of locking up our guns for safety and learning how to be proficient in their use. Words can be just as dangerous, but many people just unload into crowds without thought of wo they might hit or the impact they might have. The 1st and 2nd amendments are both rights we all share as citizens of this country, and if we choose to display them in public and wield them with authority, then we need to take the time to become proficient in their use because you never know who you might hit.
As a great philosopher once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”