“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me” is one of the lies we tell our children like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.
We know words harm people, especially words designed to shame or embarrass. Words like Fatso, or Dumbbell, or the name I was called when one morning I showed up in the 4th grade wearing glasses — “Hey, Four-Eyes.”
Politicians are good at using words as weapons. Bernie Sanders published a “tweet” in early January 2021 that said in part “Trump will go down in history as the worst and most dangerous president in history.” Samantha Power, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, reportedly said, “I called Hillary Clinton a monster, but I didn’t mean it.”
Whether it’s “Four-eyes” or “most dangerous in history” or “a monster,” no apology (which seldom happens) removes the hurt from such offensive words.
Following are three words often used as weapons intended to harm their target.
The first word may be the meanest, most malicious, despicable insult you can sling at anyone: racist. Thesarus.com gives these synonyms for racist: anti-semite, klansperson, black-supremacist, xenophobe, sexist, etc.
The label sticks hard and is difficult to defend. The last three letters of the word tell you why: ist added to a word insinuates a deeply held belief system. If you call someone a racist, you attack their character. The charge is typically meant to offend, censure, or cancel — not create harmony.
Another harmful word is traitor. A traitor is someone who acts to overthrow one’s government or to harm or kill its sovereign. According to U.S. Code, “Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason.” The level of punishment reveals this crime’s seriousness: a conviction of treason is punishable by death.
An example of misuse of this word is found in the title of a book by author David Rothkopf: Traitor: A History of American Betrayal From Benedict Arnold To Donald Trump. For the record, Mr. Rothkopf, Donald Trump was duly elected; and seventy-five million Americans who voted for his re-election obviously don’t consider him a traitor.
The third misused word is insurrection. According to Dictionary.com, an insurrection is “an act or instance of rising in revolt, rebellion, or resistance against civil authority or an established government.” Synonyms for insurrection include rebellion, revolt, coup, mutiny, and riot.
Like sedition and treason, insurrection is also a crime. Someone guilty of insurrection can be fined and imprisoned up to ten years or both. Have we seen insurrection in America? Some claim that’s what happened at the Capitol in Washington DC on January 6, 2021.
A clearer example of insurrection occurred in June of 2020 when the “Capitol Hill Organized Protest” (CHOP) in Seattle self-declared themselves an “Autonomous Zone.” It was a distinct “act or instance of rising revolt, rebellion, or resistance against civil authority.”
Words have meaning. Suppose we continue name-calling, shaming, and canceling those we disagree with. Soon we will be many micro-nations of race, religions, ideologies, tribes, ages, genders — and, ultimately, prisoners of the most powerful. We will no longer be one nation under God. We will be as Ronald Reagan warned, “a nation gone under.”
©2012 Ronald D. Ross