As a writing instructor for almost 25 years I know the power of words. And as a columnist – an opinion writer with a public platform – I try my best to not be reckless with that responsibility. I keep three quotes in front of me when I sit at my desk to write:
- “Columnists are supposed to be truth tellers – literary private eyes working for the public good.”
- “Use the power of the pen for serious thought and purposeful action.”
- “Revel in the power of stories to change the world.”
They serve as reminders of the power of our words in the public realm, something that I see has been exploited by so many individuals in the public today, from politicians to activists to media personalities. The words have not changed – as my friend recently said to me, we’ve always had hate speech and violent rhetoric – but now the ability to make corrosive statements and share them quickly on a global scale is unmatched by any time in human history. One tweet on Twitter can incite a riot; one You Tube video can spark a mass shooting; and a Facebook post of divisive rhetoric can serve as an impetus for a heinous act of terrorism. Something that was on my mind last week as I watched the aftermath of the carnage in Nice and held my breath with the news of the shooting and killing of several police officers in Baton Rouge.
Our rhetoric is a powerful weapon, and words can be used to unite or divide…build-up or tear down…affirm or destroy. My parents always taught me to choose my words carefully, to think before I speak, and that the words I use cannot be taken back once they have been spoken. You can apologize, but what is said cannot be unsaid and it cannot be unheard.
This week the Republican Convention is being held in Cleveland and next week the Democratic Convention will take place in Philadelphia. There will be many speeches given – many words spoken – some will be original, others, as we have already seen, will be borrowed words and phrases. (What did Oscar Wilde say? “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery…that mediocrity can pay to greatness.”) Both parties will present platforms that speak to their values and vision for the country. As engaged citizens we must listen to those words and evaluate if they speak to an inclusive society, if they unite us as a nation, and if they present a vision of progressive global leadership. We cannot forget that “our word is our bond,” as First Lady Michelle Obama reminded us around this time eight years ago, and our words have power.