Ethics and words

‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me.’

Gabrielle Giffords wasn’t so sure when she commented on vandalism at her congressional office in Arizona not long ago. Last March she said, “For example, we’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list, but the thing is, that the way that she has depicted it has the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district. When people do that, they have to realize there are consequences to that action.” (as quoted in Newsday, Jan. 9,2011)

Of course words have consequences, as do images. That’s why politicians make speeches, why teachers teach, advertisers advertise, and writers write. There is no direct cause and effect, of course. Too many factors go into shaping someone’s behavior to reduce it to one cause.

And it may be that the murderer of at least six in Tucson yesterday never heard of Sarah Palin. But doesn’t lessen the concern that hot and violent rhetoric by influential people creates a climate conducive to political violence.

Such violence is what some have been advocating by pointed references to the American Revolution and the call to an armed militia. The constitution protects such speech. They have a right to it but it isn’t right for opinion makers to engage in it. And it is cowardly to walk away from taking responsibility for the violence that follows.

Words matter.  The words we choose and how we use them carry moral weight.


One thought on “Ethics and words

  1. The original website with the crosshairs said “We’ve diagnosed the problem…help us prescribe the solution” (with the word solution in red).
    There is an immense amount of spin going on right now to suggest that the crosshairs were not, in fact, crosshairs, and that Sarah Palin is a victim of the media as usual. A refusal to take any moral responsibility for displaying such an image of suggested violence.
    But your point is key here: it doesn’t matter whether there was a direct correlation between the shooter and the website. This website encouraged violence in the place of dialogue to a mass audience. It cast to the far winds the suggestion that violence is appropriate for political disagreements. It lit a match in a tinderbox. Why are they surprised when there is an explosion?

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