In the aftermath of the massacre in Tucson, we hear much debate about the role of words in politics and in society. Those who defensively insist that their use of gun metaphors and violent analogies had nothing to do with a single gunman's mad attack are fooling themselves. And those who hurl accusations and blame at others for their words are failing to recognize that they, too, are guilty of verbal violence. There is plenty of blame to go around.
We all understand the power of words. Words shape our perception of the world; words trigger emotions; words wound; words have consequences. Those who write books and blogs understand the power of words; those who work in advertising and sales know the power of words; those in the media are savvy about the power of words; and political leaders know all-too-well the power of words.
Words call us to action -- to buy things, to vote a certain way, to hate those who are different from us, to eat certain foods and wear specific brands of clothes, and yes, to kill.
America was established by words -- the Declaration of Independence. Our rights and responsibilities are secured by words -- the Constitution. Words commemorate significant events in history -- the Gettysburg Address. Words capture the hopes and dreams of a people -- MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech. We memorize those words; we recite those words; we refer to those words; we call on those words to define who we are and what we stand for as a nation.
Those who pooh-pooh the lethal power of words are forgetting (or ignoring) the horrific results of deadly orators such as Hitler and Mussolini. History is replete with examples of political leaders who used their words to incite hatred, start wars, and lead their people to commit genocide.
Jesus was not the only spiritual leader who taught us how powerful our words are. Five hundred years before Jesus was born, Buddha cautioned his followers:
"Be careful of your thoughts, for your thoughts become your words.
Be careful of your words, for your words become your actions.
Be careful of your actions, for your actions become your habits.
Be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character.
Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny."
Buddha wasn't just talking about politicians and pundits -- he was talking about all of us. One of Buddha's guidelines on the Eight-fold Path is the concept of Right Speech, the first principle of ethical conduct. Buddha pointed out that "words can break or save lives, make enemies or friends, start war or create peace. He explained the elements of right speech: (1) to abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully, (2) to abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others, (3) to abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others, and (4) to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth."
Is Sarah Palin guilty of verbal violence? Are Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O'Reilly guilty of contributing to a toxic political culture? Is Keith Olbermann culpable for fanning the flames of hate? Does Rachel Maddow contribute to intolerance and anger with her commentary? Does Jon Stewart commit violence when he ridicules public figures? Jesus and Buddha would both tell us that looking for someone to blame for the Tucson massacre will not bring answers -- or healing.
The real question we need to ask is: "How do my words contribute to violence in the world? In what ways do I participate in a social and political culture of intolerance, hate, and/or violence?" For as long as we point fingers of blame at one another, we fail to see our own culpability. "And why behold you the mote that is in your brother's eye, but consider not the beam that is in your own?" the Bible chastises us.
Every time we yell at someone who cuts us off in traffic, we are being verbally violent. Each time we call someone an "idiot" or "moron," we are guilty of wrong speech. If in exasperation we blurt out, "If you do that I'll kill you!" to our spouses, our words are an attack. When we lose our tempers and drop the F-bomb on someone who angers us, that F-bomb really is a bomb. It does damage. Idle threats are not idle -- they are seeds we plant in our psychic and cultural soil -- seeds that take root and later blossom into violent acts. We reap as we sow.
If we want more civil discourse, we must start with ourselves. If we want less violence in our country, we must stop committing violence with our words. Change doesn't start in Washington -- it starts with each and every one of us, where we live and work. Gandhi taught us, "We must be the change we wish to see in the world." And the Christian hymn echoes: "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me."
BJ Gallagher's new book, "If God Is Your Co-Pilot, Switch Seats" (Hampton Roads) will be published in May.
Read more: Gun Violence, The Power of Words, Gandhi, Jesus, Tucson Massacre, Violence, Gabrielle Giffords, Hate Speech, Buddha, Tragedy in Tucson, Arizona Shooting, Buddhism, Violent Rhetoric, Politcal Rhetoric, Violent Speech, Eight-Fold Path, Religion News