Politicians and media commentators wasted no time in laying blame at the feet of their counterparts on the other side of the aisle. Former MSNBC commentator, Keith Olbermann, demanded that Sarah Palin repudiate her contribution to the tragic shooting in Tucson that left six dead and fourteen wounded, even if her part in “amplifying violence and violent imagery in politics” was only “tangential.” If she does not, “she must be removed from politics.” His countenance and tone suggested the same venom that he condemns.
One legislator drafted a bill that would ban symbols that nourish violence. This form of censorship seems remarkable when the same side calling for it has defended Hollywood when murderers admitted to copying their crimes from a movie or TV show. It also seems odd that few people are suggesting to remove “Mein Kampf” or “The Communist Manifesto” from circulation, when the shooter in Tucson, Jared Loughner, has listed these political tracts among his favorite books on his MySpace page.
As a social conservative, I am prone to defend my fellow conservatives. But my role to speak prophetically for Christ demands a more nuanced response. I admit that I often feel ashamed when listening to or reading the hostile and vitriolic comments of social conservatives. Liberals bear equal guilt. They may excuse their speech as passionate or spirited debate, but I fail to see how it rates as anything less than mean-spirited and hateful.
Although the Tucson tragedy has precipitated a call for civility in politics and public debate, an outcry for restraint, control and dignity in discourse has existed for many years. Passion never justifies irresponsible speech. It may be overreach to attempt to link Loughner’s actions with the inflammatory political rhetoric. Investigation of the accused man has uncovered a growing mental illness that excludes any connection with rational thinking. This does not exempt people from criticism for their uncivil and reckless speech.
“Sticks and stone will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is a lie incited by a childish attempt to deflect slander or verbal abuse. Words have damaged the soul of every person who ever entered into social engagement. Words have the power to wound or heal. “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing,” 12:18.
The Proverbs place heavy responsibility on our use of words.”Where words are man, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent,” 10:19. James concurs, calling the tongue a restless evil, full of deadly poison,” which desperately needs taming (James 3:5-12).
Words are more than vocalized sounds. They carry meaning that penetrates the mind and heart of the hearer. Tone enhances that meaning. Words transmit ideas, but they also communicate feelings and attitudes, which affects the feelings and attitudes of the hearer. “A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit,” 15:4.
The abundance of proverbs that warn and instruct about the power of words argues for more responsible rhetoric by every public figure. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit,” 18:21. Those who love to hear the sound of their own voices must reap the consequences of their speech, for good or evil. Midrash Tehillim, a Jewish commentary on the Scriptures, adds, “The evil tongue slays three, the slanderer, the slandered, and the listener.”
These proverbs call all of us into account for the words we choose to insert into social interaction, for the careless comments we make before we consider their consequence, for exercising the tongue prior to engaging the mind. When the audience increases, so does the responsibility. People who speak publicly, whether through oral or written media, persuade people to believe certain things and to feel certain ways. Words have incited revolutions and inspired reformations. Lack of intent does not diminish liability.
Sarah Palin can appeal to First Amendment rights all she wants, but it will not provide immunity from the real consequences of the exercise of those rights. It does not relieve anyone of the obligation to choose their words with care and caution.
Jesus warned, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36-37)
The power of words. They can be lethal or life-giving. It is your choice.