For the past several days, since the tragic shooting in Arizona, that childhood taunt has been running through my mind. "Sticks and stone may break my bones but names will never hurt me." Even as I child I knew that wasn't true. Names do hurt. Words do have power to harm. Ask anyone who has heard over and over from a parent, "You'll never amount to anything." "You're just like your (mother, father, sister, brother, uncle, aunt, etc.)"
In my home, calling someone stupid or retard was a sin. My mother had a sister with Down's Syndrome and I had a cousin who was mentally retarded from birth. Those words were never allowed, not even in anger.
I once called someone a 'fruit'; I didn't even know what it meant, I had heard it on the playground at school. The word flew out of my mouth and I was immediately summoned by my mother, "Katherine Cecelia, what did you say?" She tried to explain to my 11 year old mind why the word might be offensive, but the message was clear. Words can hurt.
The internet has given people the ability to share words with the speed of light. You can tweet and IM, email and blog any old idea that you have and someone out there is listening. Someone is going to take your words to heart and act on them. As a writer and a reader, as a person who gives thought to her words and agonizes over what she wants to say, I have found the internet to be a marvelous place to share my ideas, my hopes and dreams. I have met wonderful people who have enriched my life beyond measure.
But I have also encountered people, ideas and words that strike fear into me. It has been my practice to ignore those words and ideas, to dismiss them as extreme and not something that rational, thinking people would give any countenance. Alas, I, along with many thousands of others, have been mistaken. Words - hateful, angry, dark, incendiary words - have given license to a culture of violence that must be addressed.
I'm not talking about laying blame or pointing to this or that individual. I'm saying that the time has come for all of us - most especially those in positions of influence and power - to think before we speak. To count to ten when we are angry. To breath deeply and consider what we want our words to do. If we are encouraging people to act, be very specific about the action we want them to take. To understand that words are violent and they can kill.