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Hate-Speak Has Consequences

Words DO make an impact

In the wake of the shocking Arizona shootings and the ensuing concern that political hate-speak may be a factor in such tragedies, the response from the extreme right has been – what else? – more inflammatory hate-speak. (“Radio Hosts: We Won’t Back Down,” Boston Herald, January 11, 2011). Of course mass murderer Jared Lee Loughner did not receive directly, in the sneering words of WXKS shock jock Jeff Katz, “messages from Sarah Palin or talk radio” to go out and attempt the assassination of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. What he DID receive, however, was continued exposure to the hostile, disrespectful, snide and even slanderous climate that pollutes the American airwaves today. Such authorized – and subsidized – animosity surely creates a ripple effect of ill will.

No, most civilized people do not go on a rampage when exposed to such incessant ranting. But we all react to the negativity to some extent. We may yell back at the radio, shake our heads in disgust (or assent), or simply turn the dial. Hopefully we also try to counteract the anger by being kind to our neighbors and teaching our children the Golden Rule. Those who are disenfranchised, downtrodden, beaten or mentally ill, however, may act out more demonstratively – and with dire consequences.

Words have power. Witness the spate of teenage suicides prompted by merciless taunts and bullying. Today words also have tremendous reach. The internet has made commentary, for good or ill, pervasive and eternal.

Those in power – politicians, educators, and media spokespersons – need to understand the responsibility they shoulder every time they address the public. They are our leaders, our role models, our barometers of civility and humanity. If they behave like arrogant bullies on the playground, how can they expect their constituents to behave any better? We ask our children to practice tolerance and understanding. We should ask – no, demand – no less of our elected officials.

We are a society of individuals whose actions affect others. Sometimes consequences are dramatic and self-evident. The results of Jared Lee Loughner’s rampage are indisputable. But sometimes the more subtle consequences are just as damaging.

It’s time to start looking at hate-speak as verbal abuse. It’s time for those of us who listen in silence to put our own thoughts into words. Enough is enough.


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