Words Matter. Don’t They?

"Words," by Jim Pennucci, via Flickr.com (Creative Commons License)
"Words," by Jim Pennucci, via Flickr.com (Creative Commons License)

Once again, I sit in front of my television and try to watch the news. I have always thought it important to be well­informed, and for most of my adult life I have taken an active interest in world, U.S., state and local news, as well as politics. What’s more, I enjoyed doing it. No longer. It does not matter what channel or time of day ­ just a few moments viewing and I am angry, frightened, sad and hollering at the set. I turn it off and sit back, bewildered. What has happened to the art of communication? And what has changed that people find truthful and acceptable outright lies and hateful speech?

I am a child of the 60s. A tumultuous and sometimes violent time to be sure. And I remember so well the protests and their leaders that characterized those years and the reporters that covered them. I remember the marches on Washington and the chants of “hell no, we won’t go”. The speakers on the steps of the Capital. Kent State. I remember going with busloads of mostly women to the marches in New York demanding equal rights for women. Listening to Gloria Steinman and Betty Freidan while men jeered and yelled obscenities. I remember watching as police turned high power hoses, clubs and worse on brave people marching for their civil rights. And listening to Martin Luther King.

I remember too Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, Ed Bradley and Christiane Amanpour to name just a few.

But what I remember most are the words. The speeches so beautiful and timely that even today we remember them. Words chosen with such care. Sentences that drew pictures and aroused emotions.  Words so powerful they ended a war and toppled a President. Enabled legislation that moved us closer to equality. And newscasts that educated us, showed us the truth and sometimes moved public opinion. What I do not remember is hate speech as commonplace.

The mocking, demeaning, hurtful and malicious words that destroy a person and make impossible any reasonable discussion or opportunity to make things better or right. I do not remember the glorification of the crude and ugly or the competition to see whose words could cause the greatest outrage. I do not remember calls to violence as the norm or acceptable.

I am sure some will say I am seeing those times thru rose colored glasses or the lens of an old woman not attuned to the world as it is today. Perhaps. But in response, I say that words matter, no matter what year or generation. And that words move us to action. And that is what worries and saddens me.

It seems as if the world has gone mad. There is no moral compass, no appreciation for kindness, no desire for compromise. I have no solutions. But perhaps there is a way to start. Simple. And it does not cost a dime. What if we talk to our children about the power of words at home and in our schools? What if adults begin a conversation about it in family gatherings, in their public and private meetings and in their houses of worship? What if we talk about it at work? And suppose these conversations raise awareness of the power of words? And what if then, we resolve to choose our words more carefully? What if we decide that the purpose of communication is to express our opinions and share our ideas without causing damage? What if we conclude that language can be beautiful? Healing? Helpful? Perhaps even tilt the scales in favor of peace and tolerance?

Suppose we decide that words matter?

Carole Leskin



  1. Yes Carol,

    Words matter. Words convey meaning and your words seem to speak to my heart and my gut. I say gut because my reaction to the disgraceful noise (words without meaning) that surrounds us in ever increasing decibels is visceral.

    Your essay could not have been better timed, coming just as we were hearing the words of our major political parties at their national conventions. For a week we were assaulted by words of dread, divisiveness and denigration. Like you my instinct was to turn away. Enough.

    I do believe that words are one way, an important way to be sure, in which we express our deepest values. I, too, worry that the hate filled, untrue and otherwise infelicitous discourse which confronts us in public gatherings, the press and airwaves reflects the loss of our honor, common decency and humanity. It is distressing that incivility seems to be an equal opportunity pastime with no political, social, religious, racial, ethnic, gender or age group innocent of its practice. What has happened to our communal soul?

    Despite the despair brought on by words artlessly constructed to sell us things we don’t need, convince us to distrust and even hate those who differ from us, settle for mediocrity rather than aspire to growth and wisdom and seek status rather than appreciate with wonder all that we already are or can be, I remain optimistic and hopeful.

    Although it might give away my political leanings to say that after a week of tiresome and ugly words, during the following convention week my pessimism regarding civil conversation was eased by words of hope, healing and unity crafted with unusual thought and lyricism. Words do matter. I also confess that my anxiety about the current state of our values and our soul is allayed by the idealism and call to service I find among my students and the small acts of kindness I witness each day.

    Finally, Carol I have hope because of the wisdom and generosity of your spirit and of your WORDS. Your call to action is, perhaps, the only way individuals can solve insurmountable societal problems–start small and look towards the future. Discussions with our families especially our children and grand children, with our students, our friends and our neighbors about the beauty and the power of words is a brilliant idea. I hope to do my part.

    May the words of our mouth be acceptable—

  2. Phil;
    I know you are already doing your part! And I am glad you find cause for optimism. Hopefully, if enough of us share our words, the commitment to civility will grow.

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