Words that kill


I recently watched an article on Bill Moyer’s Journal (September 12, 2008) titled “Free Speech or Foul- Is the shock talk on talk radio effecting our political discourse?” http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/09122008/profile.html

The beginning of the story talks about a murder that occurred in July, 2008 at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universal Church http://www.tvuuc.org. The story then discussed whether the mentally deranged man who did the shooting was affected by listening to and reading inflammatory material from Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly http://www.csmonitor.com/2008/0730/p02s06-usec.html


What struck me emotionally watching this story was seeing how much my church, (Columbia United Christian Church) www.cucc-md.org

is like the church where the murders occurred. Like TVU, we welcome people of all political faiths, sexual orientations, races and genders to our congregation. Our Church Prayer of Thanksgiving is

Thank you, Living Christ, for inviting us and people of all spiritual paths, ages, mental and physical abilities, races, economic levels, political perspectives, sexual orientations and fellowships into this community of love and healing; and for always being present with us in the breaking of bread.

According to a sworn affidavit by one of the officers who interviewed the perpetrator, the perpetrator stated that he had targeted the church because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country. My congregation is largely comprised of people who are more to the left on the political spectrum, and if it wasn’t for geography, could have been a choice for the actor’s assault.

It would be inappropriate to blame Savage, O’Reilly, and Hannity for causing the murders at this church. There were a number of factors, including poverty, desperation, mental illness, marital issues, and the ability of this sick man to obtain firearms, which all contributed to this tragedy .But it would also be inappropriate to let those who use inflammatory political discussions that dehumanize and alienate those who disagree with them off the hook.

In Miguel Angel Ruiz’s book, the Four Agreements, he nails the effect of negative communication/ Ruiz equates hateful speech to a virus. Like a virus, hate messages spread and mutate. They become part of the being, and part of the society.

Modern communications provide a rapid delivery system for the virus of hate. The sheer number and scope of our communications provide multiple transmission vehicles for infection, with pinpoint accuracy. And the orators of hate recycle their messages for TV, print, email, and the Web.

As a society, we are titillated by the aggressive argument. Whether it’s Jerry Springer or Michael Savage, we just love to watch a good fight. A strong position argued passionate by a persuasive person tends to strengthen our beliefs when we initially agree with the message.

The problem is that our political rhetoric has gotten past the point of civil discussion or oration. We have moved to incendiary and inflammatory commentary that serves not just to alienate us from each other, but also to dehumanize our neighbors as the irrational, moronic, treasonist enemy. And a very small portion of this population takes this too far.

The one thing that people on the Right and the Left have in common is that both groups love this country with a passion. In general, the Left’s passion is directed towards taking care of the poor, making sure the environment is safe, and justice towards the lower and middle classes. The Right focuses on having a strong defense, personal liberties, strong personal values, and freedom to achieve.

The Right and the Left need to see that their focuses are not mutually exclusive, in fact, they are complimentary. Our respective parties and the media focused on our highlighting and even exploiting our differences, and using these differences as a wedge between us. Ruiz calls how we filter our view of our world as “the dream” in which we live. The “our neighbor is our enemy” dream is dangerous and counterproductive. We need to adopt the “we all care” dream.

There are those who would argue that free speech is a right guaranteed by the Constitution. The Supreme Court has determined that indeed it is, and they’ve also determined that drinking alcohol is a right, owning a gun is a right, and choosing to terminate a pregnancy is a right. But with all of these rights come responsibilities. You can own a gun, but you have a responsibility to use it carefully. You can drink, but you have a responsibility to protect the life of those around you by not operating a car while intoxicated. You have a right to terminate a pregnancy, but you also have an obligation not to use abortion as a primary means of birth control.

The last example is also an example that shows that the law doesn’t necessarily need to define what a responsibility is. I’m very sure that both sides of the Choice/Life argument would agree that a forced termination of a pregnancy is a difficult and tragic event in a woman’s life. It’s self-evident on both sides that abortion should be as rare as possible.

Speech can be informative, speech can be motivational, speech can be exciting. Speech can also hurt, incite, and manipulate people. Speech is a tool, and like most tools, it can be used to destroy or to build. It’s a tool that is protected by our Constitution, and like that protected gun, it can be used for good or evil.

The responsibilities associated with free speech fall both on the sender and the receiver of our right. The sender has a responsibility to be civil, truthful, and respectful of those who receive the message, as well as those who don’t want to hear the message, to the best of the sender’s ability. It’s OK to be forceful, and to have an opinion, but it is wrong to manipulate, deceive, or anger people by attacking them or as equating their beliefs as being non-American. The receiver has an obligation to determine the context of the information being received, the motivations of the speaker, and an obligation not to repeat things are offensive and not true. A receiver has an obligation to correct the record, if something is incorrect, if not directly, by at least talking to those around them who discuss the message. Finally a receiver has an obligation to turn off messaging that is of a corrosive nature.

The sponsors of speech also have a responsibility not to support speech which takes the low road. A commercial sponsor who avoids this responsibility, even outside of ratings, transfers the toxicity of this speech to their brand, their goodwill, and their shareholders.

History has shown time and time again that it is abuse of our rights which causes restrictions on our rights. Every Columbine results in people who want to restrict the rights of people to own violent video games and guns. Our right to free speech gets more restrictive every time a riot breaks out. If you love America, if you love our rights, then you are obligated to use them in a correct way.

As a Christian, my responsibility goes beyond this. My speech should be a reflection of Jesus, who told us that next to loving God, treating our neighbors as we would want ourselves treated is the essence of Christian life. Those who receive my messages, no matter where they are, are my neighbors.

What is truly unfortunate to me is that if the actor in the Tennessee church murders would have come into Tennessee Valley Unitarian to ask for help, he would have undoubtedly met with open arms by that congregation. I know he would have been welcomed in mine, and hopefully in yours.

1 Comment

  1. Charlene

    Terrific article, Paul!


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