Sunday afternoon I went to sit in my backyard and read, but the words I wanted to read were not the ones that would stick with me. At the house behind me, the young boy, around 12 or 13, had three friends over and they were playing with fake machine guns and other plastic weapons. While the sound of the weapons was annoying, their dialogue is what chilled me. They were shouting about “kill shots,” a “massacre,” asking how much ammo it would take to murder everyone. At one point a boy who seemed younger than the others yelled, “It’s so mother-fucking powerful! I could blow their brains out!” Another boy said, “Look how fast I can change the magazine!”

            Words matter. Yes, I am aware that there are video games – one in particular – where this is the language used. But words matter. Especially in a time when mass shootings, many of them school shootings, have become a fixture in our society. There are survivors, some of them quite young, who have heard these exact same words as real bullets were exploding around them, as their friends were bleeding out in front of them. As someone whose life was touched by gun violence, the language I listened to in my yard slammed up against a wound that never completely heals. 

            It matters when celebrities and political figures use antisemitic rhetoric. Kanye West is finding that out. It matters when people unfurl banners with hatred toward Jews on the overpass of the San Diego Freeway in Los Angeles. It matters when Twitter explodes with racist language and violent rhetoric in celebration of Elon Musk’s new ownership. It matters when Elon Musk himself repeats a conspiracy theory that Paul Pelosi was attacked by someone he had a gay fling with. Perhaps Musk actually realized that and that’s why he removed his tweet. 

            Elon Musk has talked about freedom of speech. So have many people who use that as justification for hate speech. But with every freedom, there are limitations and restrictions. If you have a driver’s license you are free to drive, but you can’t speed through streets and you can’t run people down. The caveat for free speech is always the warning about not yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. But there are many versions of that scenario. Using racist language, hurling antisemitic invectives at Jewish people, filling social media with conspiracy theories meant to stir up hatred and violence are all equivalent to yelling about fire in a crowded theater. But it’s yelling “Fire!” in the crowded and fearful society that we now live in.

            Words matter. Words can inspire, encourage, amuse, enrage, and sadden. They burrow into us, lifting us up to who we were always meant to be, or plummeting us into the dark depths of who we should never have become. The power of words is mysterious. What stays with us, and what doesn’t? Do young adolescent boys who shout about kill shots and massacres grow into men who would never use that language? I don’t know the answer, but it seems a valuable question to ask.

2 Responses to WORDS MATTER

  1. Tom Egly says:

    I hate to sound political but all this hate and racism seems to have exploded in the past 7-8 years. We have always had racists but with the advent of social media, it now has a platform. And to some degree, I blame Trump and his MAGA Republicans. They made it OK. Words do indeed matter.

  2. Sticks and stones will break your bones AND words will sometimes hurt you.

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