An underlying theme among some commentators in the wake of the Orlando terrorist attack is that words don’t matter.
Your kind words of sympathy don’t matter, they say. Your prayers don’t matter. Your repetitive calls for legislation for tougher gun control laws don’t matter. It’s all just hot air.
Actions, they say, are all that matters. Do something or don’t bother.
And they couldn’t be more wrong.
Words do matter. Perhaps more than actions. Because without the words to facilitate change, there is no chance of action.
What we say in the wake of a tragedy or in response to what others say does matter. How we present ourselves before acting is as important as whatever actions we might take.
When President Obama, in response to a taunt from Donald Trump last week, defended his unwillingness to use the phrase “Islamic terrorist” to describe ISIS, he demonstrated that words do matter.
If you label these people Islamic terrorists, he reasoned, you allow them to speak on behalf of all Muslims. And that gives them more power, power to recruit sympathizers to their cause, power to influence behavior, power to destroy.
Former New York First Lady Matilda Cuomo, mother of our current governor, led one of the first anti-bullying campaigns in the nation, using the phrase, “Words hit harder than a fist.”
Children have killed themselves over harsh words used by their peers on social media over some kind of physical characteristic, action or behavior. No one put a gun in that child’s hand. No one bought them the pills they used to end their lives.
The words were the weapon. The words killed.
Social media is full of people willing to hurt with words.
Look at any online article about the tragic killing of a toddler by an alligator at Walt Disney World over the weekend. Read some of the words written at the end of those articles about the parents of this child. You’ll discover a meanness you hardly knew existed.
After the Orlando massacre, a California pastor praised the shooter and, referring to the victims, said he wished more of these “predators” and “pedophiles” had been killed. While widely criticized for his vile proclamation, those who agreed with him lent credence to his remarks and kept the hate alive.
But in the same way that words can hurt, they can also heal.
And that’s where words can be the most powerful.
Words of compassion and support can not only have an uplifting effect, they also can have an inspirational effect that leads to action.
When people verbally express sympathy for victims instead of disdain, when people declare that individuals shouldn’t be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or race or religious beliefs or any other reason, when people express outrage at weak laws and insufficient responses from public officials to violence and injustice, they create an atmosphere for a momentum that inspires the action we desperately crave.
Without prayers, there is no inspiration. Without words of comfort, there is no compassion. Without words of frustration and anger, there is no action.
Words not only matter, they are our best weapon against oppression, discrimination and submission.
Choose them carefully.