When I was a little girl, my dad used to talk about a poem he loved. It was called “The First Settler’s Story,” and it was written by Will Carleton, an American poet who often took the plight of the disadvantaged as his subjects. Much of his poetry was time-specific–his poem “Over the Hill to the Poorhouse,” for example, has largely faded from public knowledge. Likewise his poem about divorce, “Betsy and I Are Out.” Even “The First Settler’s Story,” has largely become a casualty of changing times, values, and worlds.
Will Carleton wasn’t one of our finer poets, but he did manage to produce four lines of text that have been quoted over and over–even if few remember where they came from. Here are the lines:
Boys flying kites haul in their white-winged birds.
You can’t do that when you’re flying words.
Once spoken, though you wish them left unsaid,
God Himself can’t kill them, make them dead.
Words have consequences. Sometimes those consequences are unintended. In “The First Settler’s Story” the husband offers them to us as the lesson he learns in the wake of his wife’s tragic death–that his cruel, angry words to her drove her to dangerous behavior that ultimately cost her life.
Words matter. That’s why we have laws against verbal abuse. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:
Verbal abuse includes the following: countering, withholding, discounting, verbal abuse disguised as a joke, blocking & diverting, accusing & blaming, judging & criticizing, trivializing, undermining, threatening, name calling, chronic forgetting, ordering, denial of anger or abuse, and abusive anger.”
What prompted all this? The onset of our political season. I watched a clip in which a woman at a GOP Town Hall meeting asserted that President Obama should be tried for treason. It doesn’t take a genius to track this back to the overheated rhetoric during the last political campaign, where various spokespeople asserted all sorts of untrue things–and, even when those things were proven false, continued to assert them.
A virtue was made of knowing nothing. Sophomoric behavior became what passed for public discourse. And, as verbal abuse does, the rhetoric and claims became more and more vile and less and less veiled as time when on.
And now we are starting all over again–but we’re starting at a point higher on the abuse curve than we did last time. We are starting with phrases like “Don’t retreat, reload” an established (and hotly defended, even in the wake of shootings that cost lives) part of our political lexicon. We are starting with GOP operatives considering allowing rally participants to attend political events–with loaded guns. We are starting with a mass of swirling falsehoods, all of which have been “flown” not inadvertently, but as part of a concerted plan to defeat a President who “is not like us” by destroying the nation and laying the blame at his feet.
That’s not to say that the Democratic Party has been blameless–there are falsehoods there, too. But a simple look at any of the reputable, non-partisan fact check sites (and I’m defining those as sites funded by non-partisan organizations and not affiliated with any candidate’s election or defeat)–heck, even a look at the email smears reported on Snopes.com–reveals that there is a serious credibility problem in the Republican party and its conservative base today. Count the smears. Do the math.
But it’s not just the number of smears in question–it’s the violent rhetoric at issue here. The right to keep and bear arms has been translated into the right to carry loaded guns into highly charged, heavily-frequented areas. The right to “political imagery” has been cited in defense of the crosshairs marketing congressional districts that are “targeted” for takedowns. Town halls as a means of conveying information have been compromised by concerted plans to shout down speakers–to prevent the exchange of information.
I teach writing. I’m a writer by trade. It breaks my heart to see words, a unique human invention that has allowed us to develop a sense of history, a concept of past and future, a body of literature unmatched in the animal kingdom, and even a system of jurisprudence and ethics, misused to circumvent their intended purpose.
Words have become the weapons of those who take pride in their ignorance, who maintain that those who value studying the issues and weighing their merits are somehow the enemy. Words have become the servants of rage, the tools of racism, and the weapons of a group of businessmen who use them to turn the rage of the less successful against the very systems and ideas that might better their lot.
Words matter. The kites are flying again, and many of them are dark and drenched with blood. It is time that we took back our words, that we drew clear lines between spirited debate and verbal abuse, between legitimate discussion and incitements to riot, between the sorts of words that provoke us to think, and the sorts of words that can provoke some of us to pick up weapons and start shooting, or stabbing.
And so, to those most guilting (and we and you all know who they–and we–are) I would say, “We’re starting a new campaign. Let’s not make it an escalation of the last campaign. Let’s not turn what should be a uniquely American system of transferring power into a mockery of itself, and an excuse for encouraging the ugliest parts of our national heritage. Let’s not make this election be about how close we can come to actually advocating that someone kill the President.
Before we send up our kites, let’s think about who all is looking at them, and what they are seeing. Above all, let’s remember that while we might not bear physical responsibility for the actions that grow out of our words, we absolutely bear responsibility for the atmosphere our words help to create.
Will Carleton had it right. Words said cannot be unsaid, and like stones, they send out ripples. The time to recognize that–and to change the ripples we are creating–is now.