In the wake of the recent tragedy in Arizona, the aftermath, and the complicated attempts to determine whether the incendiary rhetoric espoused by Palin, the Tea Party and various media personalities, I have a feeling that we may be missing the point.
And the point—my point—is that this particular instance doesn’t matter. No, please don’t misunderstand me—the tragic loss of lives and injuries to the victims, and the suffering to the families matters very much. What I mean is that whether in this specific instance the murderous shooter was influenced by the uninhibited words—that is what does not matter. And it does not matter, because if it turns out that he was not influenced by the verbal violence (but merely ‘deranged’ from within), it is only coincidental and then the next shooter surely will be primed by words.
Much has been said about the significance of words—the literal significance—in the media, and also recently here in an excellent blog entitled “Words like bullets”. From my non-statistical sampling, I think there is general agreement that words do matter.
And yet—are we all as cautious as we should be with our expressions?
Many of us have scientific training, and clearly understand how a manuscript can be rapidly rejected for making unsubstantiated claims, or because we are not cautious enough in our interpretations. We are careful to note that “protein X often interacts with protein Y” or “protein X may interact with protein Y”. Writing that “protein X interacts with protein Y” could be, in some cases, an exaggeration that leads to rejection of the manuscript. But outside science, are we as cautious with our own words?
I frequently come across the “Oh My God” or ubiquitous “OMG” phrase. I’m willing to bet that this is also popular among sworn atheists. Another phrase that sends shivers down my back is “Thank God”. Yes, I may be an atheist—but if one thinks about it, it’s even worse for a believer to utter that phrase. Why is that?
Well, if a woman crosses the street, and is nearly hit by a car, she may say “Thank God I wasn’t hit”. If she is a believer, then in effect, she is thankful to God for stepping in to save her from being killed. What does this say about the morals of this God who concurrently allows thousands of children to die that very day from leukemia, typhoid, HIV, malaria or simply starvation? Why thank him at all?
My intention was not to start a theological discussion, nor to become the “word police”. And I know that usually that phrase is not meant to be literal (although sometimes it is). But I do think that words and phrases carry baggage—some of it hidden and inconspicuous—but nonetheless there are associated meanings that come with words.
Does it matter? I think it does.