Outside of the office where I work, there is a rare University-sponsored ashtray. Rare, because these days, one is discouraged from smoking in public, and from smoking outside, and from smoking during the daytime, and so on and so forth. But there it sits, a clearly defined and delineated ashtray: a conglomerate stone pillar, three or so feet high, with a small flat-bottomed crater cut into the top, two inches deep and filled with sand, littered with so many cigarette butts, the odd candy wrapper or two, and the sucked-clean head of a lollipop stick. The ashtray is meant to blend in with the rest of the ornaments in the decorative courtyard; benches, tables, and trash bins alike are made with the mixed-stone façade and scattered around great raised beds of grass and mesquite trees. What makes this ashtray special, what elevates it from the humdrum existence of dirty, disgraceful ashtray-ness and makes it worthy of further reflection is that somebody has written around the inch-wide lip of the crater, in black permanent marker, “This is Not An Ashtray.”
Now, I know this is an ashtray, from having seen its refuse in person, and you know this is an ashtray, just from my description. Haven’t I shown you the sand? The butts? The wrappers? The errant lollipop stick? These are undeniable markers of a public ashtray, certainly. And yet…when I look at this sand-filled depression in stone, despite the clear indications to the contrary, my mind is struck by the definitive statement, “This is Not an Ashtray,” and for a moment, I find myself wondering.
Is this really not an ashtray? Have people just co-opted the little stone pillar and begun to use it as an ashtray? Is this not its intended purpose? Am I about to sully this poor rock art installation even further by wantonly ashing into it’s sand cup? After a few moments of reflection, I come to realize that this is probably some healthy person’s contribution to the quit-smoking campaign; a bit annoying perhaps, but a more mellow suggestion than the indignant shouts of an offended pedestrian yelling at me to not smoke around him or her. Still, I saw the words, and in the moment I saw them, I wondered, despite all other evidence to the contrary.
This is how important words are.
Words on the page (or ashtray) can lead us to believe something, or unbelieve something, or wonder if something we know to be true is, in fact, really something false. A picture is perhaps worth a thousand words, and I won’t quibble with that adage, but a sentence or two written on that same picture can itself inform the viewer in a plethora of ways (especially if it was one of my long, rambling, multi-claused and multi-parenthesized sentences that has close to a thousand words, or just seems like it does).
Which is why I feel compelled, to insist over and over in my daily life and in my private writing and now, in this public blog, that language matters. Words matter. From at least the moment we enter formal schooling, and for many of us, much much earlier, we are presented with the Truth and Importance of the written word. We are taught to read as a way of understanding what the world has to offer and taught to write as a way to convince others of what we believe and need them to hear. We begin to learn these things as toddlers and the idea of written words as a declarative source of truth works its way into our psyche and stays lodged there, in some form or another, for the rest of our lives. This is not to say that as we get older and increasingly analytical of our surroundings that we don’t start to question what we read, but the idea of words essentially starting in truth as a baseline of meaning is one that will haunt critical thought throughout our lives.
Which is why, in the wake of the shooting in Tucson that killed six people, gravely injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, injured twelve others, and led to a lot of grief, fear, mourning, and reflection in the desert, I think it’s appropriate to talk about how words may well have somehow influenced the shooter. While I don’t think that Jared Lee Loughner necessarily read or viewed Sarah Palin’s Gun Sights memo prior to his rampage, I do think that rhetoric like that helps to inform the national consciousness and influences our views of normative behaviors.
I know that many people say this is irrelevant; it was a lone, crazed gunman, not an organization or a violent tractate that led to this event. But I charge that language matters. Sane people, crazy people, large groups, small groups, everybody with ears and eyes hears and reads the things that public people say, and we all internalize these things. Hate speech is damaging beyond its initial press-worthy salvo; it worms its way into our minds and our hearts and sows seeds of fear and violence.
Furthermore, I’m convinced that talking and thinking about the role of political rhetoric in the context of this shooting is not partisan, or unfair, or victimizing anybody. At the same time, I don’t think that we should arrest people who say things like this or fine them or penalize them in any way. I believe in freedom of speech and I stand by everyone’s right to say what they think and feel. But freedom of speech isn’t freedom from criticism, harsh though it may be and guilt-provoking as it may seem. Those of us who think that right-wing rhetoric is damaging to the national consciousness have just as much right to say these things as the right-wingers have to talk about “locking and loading” on the “political battlefield.” I’ll even go one step further and say that as citizens of America and participants in world culture, it’s our responsibility to talk about these things, and criticize what we find faulty.
Because words? They matter. Whether we trust them, or mistrust them, or understand them or don’t, they influence our emotions and perceptions enough to make us wonder if something is really what it seems to be, despite all visual evidence pointing in one direction. Words are powerful. Language matters. Say what you want to say, and what you need to say, and what you think others should hear. But while you’re doing it, watch your mouth.