There is a popular country song on the radio right now by Eric Church called “Kill a Word”. I have to be honest. The first few times I heard the song, I thought it was about fishing. No lie; my brain interpreted the lyric as “kill a worm”. Let’s face it, I’m not too observant and I expect country songs to be about fishing – not the power of words.
The truth is that words are the most powerful tool we have. I haven’t always understood this. I was one of those people who thought the world was becoming too politically correct. I was of the opinion that it was the meaning behind what was said that mattered and not the word itself. I was wrong. This didn’t make me a bad person; it just made me ignorant. I was ignorant because words had never been used against me. Maybe they have, but like I said, I’m not too observant. I also have the blessed ability to not really be affected by much. I guess you could say I have a “thick skin” or selective deafness, either way the school yard chant about words and rubber and glue kind of resonated with me. This isn’t to say that I went around hurling hurtful words at people; I’m much too polite for that. These opinions, about words, not people, only came out in private thoughts and conversations.
I can almost point to the day on a calendar when my attitude changed. I was stranded in an airport reading a book while waiting for my plane to board when a nicely dressed woman breeze by in a huff. As she walked away, I heard her say “Those damn #$#$%@ are ruining this country.” This wasn’t something she said under her breath either; the entire terminal collectively gasped at the disparaging remark. She meant for everyone to hear what she was thinking – not just her target. We fellow travelers exchanged nervous glances and we mumbled to our companions about how horrid of a woman she was, but not one person called her out or sought out the target of her rage. Within minutes the normal din of the airport terminal returned and the moment was quickly forgotten.
I was reminded of this incident the other day when I read a comment about President-elect Trump along the lines of “I’d rather have someone I know is a racist than someone who I don’t know what they are hiding.” This comment sent a chill down my spine. Suddenly, I was back in that airport terminal witnessing what it was like when a woman thought the world needed to know exactly what kind of person she was. She too was proud of her hatred; the difference was that the people in that terminal were shocked.
People are no longer shocked by hatred. In fact, I think it’s become celebrated. Not caring if your words hurt has become a point of pride. The attitude that kindness and consideration is nothing more than “PC bullshit” is now the norm. I use to make excuses for older people because it’s “all they’ve ever known.” Well that’s only true if they’ve been living under a rock for the past 50 years. Everyone knows what words are harmful, what words cut so deep that they may as well have been carried in on an arrow. It’s not okay folks. I’ve heard people say that our President-elect isn’t a racist or homophobic or any of the other things “the liberals” claim he is. He may not be, but this week, he just placed the de facto leader of the alt-right movement into a position of influence into the white house. These are people who carry signs proclaiming that diversity is white genocide.
How many times have you heard the phrase “If you lie down with dogs you get fleas”? This is a phrase that is told to teenagers who are hanging out with the “wrong crowd.” Well, even if our President-elect had never once said an off-color thing (which he has multiple times) he still didn’t stand against those who did. While he has had plenty to say about the people protesting him this week, he has yet to speak against the hateful words that many of his supporters have proudly displayed throughout his campaign. If you are a white, Christian American, please imagine for a second that you are not. Imagine you’re an African-American mother trying to explain to your children that the men holding the sign saying “make American white again” doesn’t really mean it or that their new president doesn’t really hate them. Imagine you are a Muslim American family sending your daughter to school everyday scared that she will be assaulted because she’s wearing a hijab. Imagine you’re a Mexican-American third grader who has only ever known the United States as his home worried that his parents, who have also been here since they were children, are going to be deported because they have never been able to afford to become citizens. Put yourselves in their shoes for one minute and tell me this is all okay. Tell me these words aren’t harmful – that they’re just words.
So, how do we “kill a word” like the song says? We kill them first by not using them. We kill them by reminding people that they are not okay when you hear someone say them. We kill them by replacing them with kind words. We kill them by realizing that words can hurt. We kill them by purposefully removing them from our collective vocabulary. Let’s kill these words once and for all. Let’s kill the hateful words and replace them with words of love, acceptance, and kindness. Get up and shake off the fleas. Be kind. Be respectful. Love your neighbor.