“Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.”
The preceding words, penned by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, highlight a reality too often overlooked: Words matter. Immensely.
Humans, motivated by the inspiring words of their leaders, have created thriving civilizations. Through words, both oral and written, traditions and values have been handed from generation to generation across millennia.
Humanity’s ability to communicate has at points in history radically reshaped our world for better or for worse.
Whether written on bumper stickers, spoken in TV commercials, or quoted from religious scriptures, words evoke emotions and plant thoughts that can change hearts, minds and actions.
Words may have additional impact because of who speaks them. When a friend tells us something outrageous, we’re more likely to believe or even agree than if a stranger says the same thing.
We show great deference to experts, trusting that they’re more knowledgeable than we are. When national leaders speak, we may grant them greater credence because of respect for the office they hold or because we assume they have greater access to pertinent facts.
But before granting undue credence to any speakers or their assertions, we should remember the Russian proverb popularized in the U.S. by President Ronald Reagan: “Trust, but verify.”
When we choose not to respond to inaccurate or inappropriate words spoken by others, our lack of response may be interpreted as support for what was said. When we remain silent in the face of criticism of our own ideas or actions, it may seem that we have no rebuttal — that we’re “guilty as charged.”
Despite the cliche, silence isn’t always golden.
Certainly, at times we may be so stunned by the words someone has just spoken that we need a moment to gather our thoughts. But even when we haven’t yet come up with an award-worthy rejoinder, we’re usually better off defending ourselves and others — even if inadequately — than simply ignoring the challenge.
Lack of response typically emboldens the attacker, leading to words that are even more provocative, more dehumanizing, or more threatening. Although it’s usually easier just to walk away — to change the channel, so to speak — we owe it to those being maligned and demeaned to speak up on their behalf.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. presciently noted, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
As individuals, we may find comfort in the certainty that “I’m not racist. I’m not sexist. I’m not bigoted.” But is that ever enough? Does a hidden response change anyone else’s mind? Does it help prevent hatred or the violence hate can incite?
Of course, not every verbal transgression is purposeful. So, our initial response should typically be charitable. People with good intentions can unwittingly use terms or methods of expression that come across as aggressive, insulting, demeaning. If at the first lack of clarity, we ask what the speaker actually means, we can help those with good intentions express themselves more effectively.
For those who intentionally use specific words to convey hatred, it’s crucial to let them know why we feel so strongly that they’re mistaken. We must help them understand the impact of their words on others. Those who are the target of such words are often not present — so they can’t defend themselves. In such cases, we’re their only source of defense.
Regardless of our religious perspective, our political affiliation, our culture or any other identity or allegiance, when others are being maligned and demeaned, we have an obligation to respond in the way we would want others to respond if we were the target of such words of hate and derision.
Some refer to this as reciprocity. Others call it the Golden Rule. But whatever we call it, it’s a human value that should be honored universally.
David Williamson is co-founder of the Central Florida Freethought Community and a board member of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.