How much do words matter?
Some 25 years ago, a debate was raging in America about the power of words. The argument was this: do words matter?
William Raspberry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at The Washington Post whose articles occasionally appeared in The Royal Gazette, shared his view: “And, yes, words matter. They may reflect reality, but they also have the power to change reality — the power to uplift and the power to abase.”
The debate about the power of language was fought largely on the terrain of gender and race. Disagreements continue today. Yet, to my mind, there was a clear victor: words do matter.
Take the old nursery rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Really? Tell that to someone on the receiving end of verbal cruelty.
Words can be weapons most powerful. Mr Raspberry was right: words have “the power to abase”.
He was also correct that words have “the power to uplift”. Yet, for uplifting to happen, we must first hear what is actually said …
And that’s the strange thing.
Fast-forward to today’s politics and people seem increasingly less willing to listen to the views of others. People seem less willing to engage in civil discourse — debating differences of opinion without resorting to personal attacks.
Today, the value of what is said is too often eclipsed. Modern “debate” attacks the speaker: undermine the messenger and you undermine the message.
Increasingly, conversation occurs within an “echo chamber” of agreement. People engage with those who already share their views. People with opposing views are “non-platformed” — their words denied oxygen.
Take for example a letter to the Gazette last week. The letter writer was responding to an article in the newspaper. The article was critical of the Progressive Labour Party’s healthcare plan. The letter writer supported the plan.
Yet it is how the letter writer responded that is illustrative. The letter writer attacked, saying that anyone opposing the PLP plan has: “disinterest in a common good and lack of understanding”.
So, if you happen to object to the PLP healthcare plan, the letter writer is saying you either don’t care about other people, or you are ignorant.
If “words matter”, then ask yourself this: is this any way to start a conversation?
How can we find common ground if we attack and “non-platform” anyone with an opposing viewpoint?
And that raises a further concern: public discourse no longer seems to strive for common ground.
Today’s public discourse, both in Bermuda and beyond, seems instead to fan the flames of division — ensuring an “us versus them” mentality. Divide and conquer. Perhaps it was ever thus?
But is that what people really want? And is that what we need?
In the last parliamentary sitting before the Christmas break, a number of speakers adopted this “non-platform” approach — attacking personally those whose opinions differed from their own. As it happens, the examples that follow concerned healthcare, again, and the economy, but the same approach could have been taken with any important issue.
One MP, a PLP Cabinet minister, who was speculating about why some 7,000 people had signed a petition opposing the healthcare plan, pointed to misinformation and explained: “Perhaps persons have self-interests, perhaps persons just want to perpetrate fake news.”
So it is not possible to hold a valid opinion to the contrary — this MP seemed to say — those who disagree do so because of self-interest and the desire to mislead others.
Another MP, a PLP backbencher, deployed this in a debate about Bermuda’s economy: “To say that our economy is in decline is an outright lie.”
Yes, you heard that right. If you happen to disagree with this MP’s opinion on the present state of our economy — and, respectfully, I do — then you, or I, must be dishonest.
And, I am sad to say, this “slash and burn” approach to modern debate goes all the way to the top.
In his speech to the PLP Delegates Conference at the end of October, the Premier had this to say about those who disagree: “We must never lose sight of who the real enemy are.”
In December, we heard this same unfortunate reference to “enemies” from the PLP chairman in the leaked recording from an internal party meeting.
Words matter. Are those who disagree with you really your enemy? The reality is that most people are concerned to achieve “a common good”.
Sure, people do sometimes form opinions based upon a “lack of understanding”. But far more often we simply have different notions about how best to allocate limited resources in an imperfect world.
Politicians will disagree. But does that make us enemies?
People will disagree. But aren’t we all Bermudians?
So here’s a suggestion. When we disagree, which no doubt we will, let’s try to engage with the ideas rather than attack the individuals.
If we could do that, we just might hear words that matter.
• Scott Pearman is the Shadow Minister of Legal Affairs and the MP for Paget East (Constituency 22)
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