Words have power. I see that impact when people tell me they were moved to action by my speech or by a passage in my book. I know how I feel when I hear words that inspire or enrage me.
We don’t know what sparks a disturbed mind to take a particular destructive action. But we do know that what people say and how they say it creates an environment, and that environment impacts what others say and do. We don’t have to get into politics to see that.
A teacher told me that she finds her recent Kindergarten and first grade children more aggressive, more rude than she’s seen in years of teaching. “They are watching the adults around them,” she said. The television is filled with images of angry people yelling at each other. And it’s not just the news. The level of angry yelling on “family” shows is far greater than it used to be. Just turn on the old reruns on TVLand and it becomes crystal clear.
But our children don’t need to turn to TV, movies, or even video games to get a taste of adults out of control. The teacher described a father at a school basketball game yelling at the referee over a particular call. “If the children see the adults yelling at an authority figure, then they think that’s appropriate,”
Another teacher told me about a 4th grade student who had an “assassination list.” Did he know what that meant? Absolutely. He had pictures of knives and guns on his paper. And why were they on his list? Because, “They told me I wasn’t the line leader and I needed to go back. I wasn’t the line leader, but I still didn’t like it.” The message adults today send: You don’t like a message, threaten the messenger.
A few years ago, I was part of an Interfaith dialogue of Muslims and Jews, organized by a Muslim friend and my husband and me. Over the months, the 15 of us grew to become friends. We learned how many ways we are similar, both historically and as members of the same community. But after about a year, we began talking about world events and the dialogue broke down. Feelings became raw over statements made by one side or the other, often taken out of context. In talking about it with my Muslim friend, we both realized what had happened. There were people in the group who had joined solely to convince others that they were right, that their stories were more valid. At that moment I realized that dialogue only works if both sides come to learn, not teach.
We all need to take responsibility for our actions, including the words we use. If we create a hostile environment where no one with a different perspective feels comfortable speaking, then we all lose, whether in our homes, our schools, or our workplaces. We become closed-down and one-dimensional. And we model for children that there is only one “right way” and that’s my way. And that is a disservice to our children and our future.