Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe: The words we choose to use

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

The words we choose to use

Monday, June 8, 2009

I’ve written frequently about the power of words. It's something I feel strongly about. I’ve talked about how we teach little children to “use your words” to make themselves understood instead of fighting or biting or throwing tantrums. I’ve written about being vigilant not to let our words lose their meaning. The most mundane and silly example of that is when we ask for a “tall” coffee at Starbucks when what we really want is their smallest size. And, of course, more insidious recent examples include legislative naming rights like “Defense of Marriage Act” and “Patriot Act.”

I thought about words and their power again the other day when I read Ellen Goodman’s outstanding op-ed piece, The Myth of the Lone Shooter, about the murder of Dr. George Tiller. She makes the point that, again and again, the person supposedly acting alone to commit a appalling act like Scott Roeder’s has been aided and abetted by a universe of people shooting hateful words from the hip.

The pen, as we’ve all been taught, is mightier than the sword and the two together are an unbeatable combination, for good or ill. In the case of Roeder, the word, written and spoken, sharpened the sword, morphed its use into a righteous act, and whispered self-deception into his ear. The words came from Bill O’Reilly et al. ranting onscreen, from the Operation Rescue people shouting at women entering abortion clinics, from opportunistic public figures glomming onto an issue, and from private citizens who are kind to their dogs and buy Girl Scout cookies and generally think of themselves as good people. And from any one of us who plays fast and loose with the power of what we say.

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Blogger Marie Cloutier said...

It's true what you say. I think it's always tough to balance in a free society the importance of free speech and its cost- and it's easy to underestimate the power of words on people who are disturbed, especially when we live in such a violent culture. A lot of people whose words aided and abetted the shooter are responsible for Dr. Tiller's murder just as much as the shooter.

June 8, 2009 at 2:16 PM  
Blogger Mim said...

Thank you, Ellen, for your thoughtful post. I'm thinking of that childhood chant:

Sticks and stones
may break my bones,
but names
will never hurt me.

Not true!

June 9, 2009 at 5:52 AM  

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