“Words matter” has become something of a mantra in certain mainstream media in the context of the presidency of Donald Trump and its consequences, evidenced most recently on the assault on the US Capitol, which have flowed from his utterances via social media and at rallies.
The words of some persons matter much more than others. People have been mobilised to purposive and productive action by the soaring rhetoric of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech; the inspirational words of Nelson Mandela at a moment of national renewal, and Winston Churchill at a moment of national crisis; as well as the pithy sayings of Mahatma Gandhi.
Similarly, the rhetoric of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini inspired people to conflict, genocide, and a war which consumed the whole world.
While social media is not unambiguously bad, it has multiplied the range and volume of rhetoric. It has permitted gossip and speculation to morph into lies and conspiracy theories, often shielded under a cloak of anonymity. People are induced to form views and join movements with sometimes nefarious objectives.
In the same way that celebrities and ‘influencers’, whose voices are amplified by the clever algorithms on those platforms, encourage us to buy merchandise, so too demagogues tap into a rich vein of disinformation for their campaigns.
Because the content on social media is often not filtered by editors, as occurs in traditional media, almost anything goes, including what can only be described as ‘hate speech’. Words matter.
Words matter also at the domestic and interpersonal levels. Verbal abuse of children, perhaps more than physical abuse, can wound and scar them for life. They may experience loss of self-confidence and self-esteem, become shy and introverted, or aggressive and violent.
Verbal abuse of a spouse can similarly undermine psychological resilience. Within the workplace too, how bosses engage with their subordinates can traumatise workers. In these situations, the child, the spouse, the worker, may be trapped and unable to escape the abuse. Words matter.
The spoken word is one of the four things that do not come back. So, it is imperative that as far as possible, our utterances are not sources of hurt to others and sources of regret to ourselves.
In fact, the first maxim we should observe is that if we have nothing good to say about someone, we should say nothing at all. “Where words are many, sin is not wanting; but those who restrain their lips, do well” (Prov 10:19).
What escapes our lips is rooted in what is in our minds and hearts. What is in our minds is shaped by what we have learned. That forms our views of people and situations, what we perceive and to what we may be blind.
Sometimes in the heat of anger, or resentment from some hurt, real or imagined, we lash out with hurtful words. Time and sincere contrition can heal our wounds and the wounds of those whom we have verbally abused.
But it is a wholly different matter when our hearts are infected with and inflamed by the viruses of racism, or misogyny, or pride. These shape what we even choose to accept as facts. Our understanding is warped, and rational argument may have little effect.
Achieving a better world in which we all come to understand that ‘words matter’, requires not only societal regulation of social media and robust responses to demagoguery, but also what Archbishop Jason Gordon has termed “an exaggerated responsibility to the common good” as well as the influencing of minds and hearts so that what escapes our lips might always uplift, empower, empathise, and give glory to God.