Over the past week, I have been struck by the battle of words that has raged across the media, both social and mainstream. It has been very similar in tone to the back-and-forth before the election, although it seems that recent events have touched people in far more emotional and core ways than that. That’s the good news; things of this nature should touch us at a very deep level. The bad news is that the activation of this core level has led to a deep divide in rationalizations, justifications and the search for solutions.
This blog is neither the time nor place to discuss violence in our country nor the cure for it.
But what I have been acutely aware of during the discussion is the use of words.
Language is a universally human trait. Yes, I know, animals have language, too, but since I don’t speak dolphin or chimpanzee, I can’t attest to the qualities of their languages. Our language, however, is an intriguing mix of describing facts and layering in emotion. It’s easy to imagine a man in the Stone Age saying (grunting?) to a friend, “Mammoth coming.” This simple observation of a fact is devoid of emotion, but when the man adds, “Run!” suddenly it’s a different story. And if he happens to add, “Run fast!” then the heightened emotion kicks the whole drama up several notches.
This very simple language of spare words has, over the millennia, evolved into a highly nuanced vehicle for conveying ideas. We no longer have to rely on simple adverbs (“Run fast!”) or adjectives (“Big Mammoth!”). We have now at our disposal an abundance of words that can denote any degree along a scale of emotion from mild to mixed to manic. It’s one of the most phenomenal qualities of words that they can convey passion, panic, longing, hatred, fear. It is exactly these qualities that make writing so powerful, both in the realm of story-telling and in journalism, for as words convey emotion, they can also promote it. Who can deny the rose-colored contentment felt after finishing a romance novel? Or the arousal induced by “adult” fiction? Inciting emotions is what pulls us into a story, what makes it relevant to us and what makes us care about the outcome. Words compel us to cheer Rhett Butler as he strides away from Scarlet; they instill in us to a righteous hope when Tom Joad says, “I’ll be there.”
Journalism, however, is not (most of the time) story-telling.
Journalism is supposed to be predicated on the truth. Journalism is supposed to be about gathering and presenting the facts of an issue. But words, those simple building blocks of communication, can like any tool be used for good or ill depending on the writer’s intent. They can be used to convey a message or incite emotion.
As an example, read the two sentences below.
He shot 20 children.
He massacred 20 innocent children.
You may agree that one or both of those statements are factually correct, yet notice the difference in the emotional content. The emotionally loaded words take the simple statement to a new level. I am not making a judgment about either statement, or about the things that are currently being said and written, but I am, during this time of high emotion and fear, paying particular attention to the words that are being used.
Because words are powerful.