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02.16.11

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Sticks and Stones

Why words matter in the quest for peace

By Will Shonbrun


Despite the old adage, it's known by most that the impact of words—harsh, accusatory, judgmental or condemnatory—last and fester far longer than bodily bruises. Words matter. Ask the preacher or the politician or the pundit. Ask the dictator. First come the words, then the actions.

Since the tragic event in Tucson last month, we've been hearing from politicians and pundits—some of them—to turn down the inflammatory and violence-oriented rhetoric, to cool the hate speech and to understand that such words have consequences, as we've been told so may times. It happens every time these kinds of brutally insane and heart-wrenching rampages occur.

Of course words matter. It's an old, old story, but we've only to look a short distance to past history: the rationale for stolen land because its inhabitants were godless savages; an excuse for slavery, one of the depths of human depravity, because its victims weren't fully human; the oppression and subjugation against women and minorities and their relegation to second-class status; the McCarthy era; and the rousing of our nation to war in East Asia or the Middle East through fear and the demonization of some "enemy."

Calls for more civil discourse, for less personal attacks and for easing off violent, militant words and symbols are heard throughout the land, as always follows tragic, senseless killings. And while this is the proper and right response, it is undermined by a fundamental hypocrisy in our culture: we are a violent people.

We tell our children that problems cannot and should not be solved by violence, and that our differences cannot be rectified through aggression. But what do we show them on the world stage?

We invade countries that we disagree with when we believe it is in our interest to do so, and we manufacture the reasons and rationales to get our people to accept, support and fight in these wars. But "invade" is a too surgical, too clinical word. It does not describe the reality of the act. A recent example: Before our military set foot in Iraq in 2003, we rained bombs and missiles on sections of the country for two weeks. Remember "shock and awe"?

Those bombs and missiles not only destroyed and rendered into rubble buildings and infrastructure, they tore apart human beings: families, babies and children of people who just happened to be living in the wrong place at the wrong time. These were other human beings, no different than our families, friends and neighbors; no different than us. Our military, before and during the invasion of Iraq, killed, brutally and violently murdered, and maimed countless people no different in their hopes, dreams and desires than you or I. That's the reality of war.

We tell our children not to engage in violence to solve their problems, but it's the first thing we resort to, while at the same time manufacturing and selling arms to practically all the nations of the world. We spend about half of our entire budget fighting and preparing to wage wars. How can we tell our children to seek nonviolent solutions when our actions belie our words?

We preach nonviolence and at the same time justify the use of torture. We have a congressman recently calling for the assassination of Wikileaks' Julian Assange—not a trial to establish innocence or guilt, but an assassination, a mob hit. This is and other such utterances are the level of discourse from some of our political leaders and extreme right-wing pundits.

How can we expect our people to behave respectfully, to debate differences honestly and logically, to keep our national discourse civil when the reality of how we act and what we say projects just the opposite? Only when we stop exhorting and resorting to violence in order to get what we want will we be able to bridge the divides that have grown deeper and wider in our country. Only when our actions mirror our words will we be able to advise our children and tell ourselves and the rest of the world how to live in peace. Will such a time ever come?

Will Shonbrun is a writer living in Sonoma.


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