The Power of Words

Welcome to the third installment of Solidarity Thursdays. With the wise words of Jaysen Waller at The Metta Garden blog and Esther Emery at Church in the Canyon as my companions we set out this week to discuss The Power of Words.  Thanks for reading and please join the conversation by leaving a comment, submitting a topic, or linking to your own blog.

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“One lie has the power to tarnish a thousand truths.” – Al Davis

With the Presidential election less than a week away, it seems fitting to explore how the words we choose to speak and those that we opt to listen to affect our ability to maintain an open mind and create an atmosphere of inclusiveness and solidarity.

Political Ads

This political season has seen an incredibly abusive use of language.  It is not so much that the ads have been negative.  We’re used to that, we’re American.  Negative campaigning has been with us since some of our first elections.  Our first negative campaign came in 1800, long before the era of television or radio and only 14 years into our history as a sovereign nation.  Then President John Adams and Vice-President Thomas Jefferson slung mud at each other like school-boys with Adams’ surrogates suggesting that should Jefferson become President “we would see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution.” – and that he would create a nation where “murder, robbery,rape, adultery and incest will openly be taught and practiced.”  James Callender, a controversial journalist of the time acting as a Jefferson surrogate wrote prominently that Adams was a warmongering liar who “behaved neither like a man nor like a woman but instead possessed a hideous hermaphroditical character.”  Still more examples of negative campaigns are available throughout our history, and Rick Ungar did an excellent job reminding us that the campaigns we see today are nothing new in his August 20th, 2012 article in  Forbes Magazine, The Dirtiest Presidential Campaign Ever? Not Even Close!  The issue remains however, that the spurious claims we have seen in this political cycle have reached new heights.

It’s not that the claims made by either candidate are any more negative or any less hurtful or untrue, but more importantly, that they are so immensely pervasive in our daily lives.  What’s more, we live in a world of nearly limitless access to information and fact-checking, so false claims can be weeded out and held to account within hours of an original claim.

What, to me, has been so frustrating in this election is not that the campaigns have been nasty about each other and their personal character, but that even when a false claim that has been proven thus by fact checkers and investigative journalism is widely understood by the majority of people following politics closely (admittedly not a majority of the population), the candidates have often stuck by their original claims, knowing them to be false.  In one instance, Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster, even responded to the press’ questions about a false attack by saying, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”  President Obama has repeatedly claimed that Romney’s tax cut would add $5 Trillion dollars to the debt, and while the Romney campaign has not offered any specifics about how they would make the plan “revenue neutral” as they claim, the figure that the Obama administration is using is still inaccurate.  Most recently, the Romney campaign has made several false claims about the auto industry, and when called out on it, doubled down with a TV ad, then when called out on that, tripled down with a new radio ad making the same claims.  Similarly, the campaign’s first false ad of the season which first aired in the middle of the primaries is still being aired in some swing states and is available on the Governor’s website.  Both candidates and their campaign’s are culpable, and they do it all knowingly. Why?  Because it works.  Because words are powerful.  They stick in people’s minds and they deeply affect our actions.

Thoughtful Dialogue

The unfortunate by-product of an election that knowingly twists the truth and bends the facts to political advantage is that it hinders thoughtful dialogue.  It renders attempts to engage in discussions with people that hold different views than our own impotent.  It is nearly impossible to get to the heart of an issue and discuss it thoughtfully because we have learned, in this highly polarized and insular culture, to view each other as the enemy, rather than seeing each other as neighbors with common interests.  I am party to this myself.  I recognize my political leanings are worn proudly on my sleeve, my bumper, my yard, and my windows, which are littered with signs, stickers, and buttons shouting my endorsements to the world.  I would likely be better served to ask more questions and do more listening than to simply spout my point of view to all those within earshot.  I would be better served by stepping back from the ring of fire and recognizing that rather than both sides trying to most effectively and elegantly jump through it, we should be pooling our resources toward the goal of extinguishing the fire.  As a very good friend of mine said recently in a post imploring people to set aside their differences, “Democrats and Republicans need to know each other. They need to know one another’s families. It is much more difficult to attack someone on a personal level if you respect them as a person. This is the most effective way to get things done.”

24 Hour News Cycle

So why can’t I step back from that ring?  Why can’t we step back together.  Much of the reason falls on the shoulders of our 24 hour news cycle.  At any time of day or night, I can tune in to an endless stream of “news”.  The thing is, most of this is not news.  I often say that I want to watch the news, and so I head to my favorite website and click on the streaming video.  It is literally and endless loop of pundits using their own unique experiences to comment on whatever that block of “news” is trying to address.  If you want real news, most of it can be summed up in the ten minutes of hourly updates provided by CBS or NPR or any other network’s radio division.  The other 50 minutes of the hour is really just fill that is designed to keep you listening such that you might stick around for the ad buy, or reach a little deeper into your pockets when the next funding drive rolls around.  This is not to say that there is nothing of worth in these minutes, but it is most likely not “news”.  There is a reason that news, prior to CNN, happened each evening at 5 and 10pm and hourly throughout the day in small snippets…  There wasn’t enough to fill the time, and there still isn’t, but where there’s a profit, there’s a way.

Echo Chambers

Because the 24 Hour News Cycle needs to fill additional minutes and provide enough interesting content for people to watch, they need to create identities.  They need personalities.  It must be entertaining if a viewer is going to stick around long enough to see the commercials.  Those identities have increasingly become dangerous echo chambers, in which what is said one hour, is repeated in the next hour and reported as news. I say this is dangerous, because it becomes increasingly more difficult to break through that collective consciousness and to speak with any dissent to the prevailing winds of that media outlet.  Ever-more bombastic personalities rise to the top shouting down the “enemy” and creating controversy, not because it helps move the discussion, but because it draws ratings and thus advertising dollars.  This further drives a rift between two sides of a growing civil war of ideas, and leaves us incapable of reaching out to one another for advice and discourse that can move us toward our natural capacity for cooperation.

Science

There is a lot of debate in the scientific community about the affects of positive and negative speech, but researchers are increasingly more able, as they work across specialties, to demonstrate that speech does at least add to the conversation when we consider our cognitive abilities and our capacity for compassion and empathy.  In an interview with Andrew Newberg, M.D., a leading neuroscientist and director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College, Salon.com‘s Jamie Cone discussed how new discoveries in science suggest that our brains form better connections when positive language and communication is employed than when negative speech is primary.  He has also found that the impulses for cooperation in the brain have developed in the higher or more sophisticated parts of the brain suggesting, since the selfish impulses occur in the less developed or more instinctual portion of the brain, that cooperation is part of our evolution and therefore in our common nature as a species.  In their recent book, Words Can Change Your Brain, Newberg collaborated with Mark Robert Waldman, a professor of communications at Loyola Marymount to offer a view of what they call “Compassionate Communication”, which they hope will provide a new framework for people to express themselves more effectively to others.  While Newberg and Waldman have published scientific papers and done repeatable studies in the field, Dr. Masaru Emoto, of fame for his water crystals experiments featured in the 2004 film What the Bleep Do We Know!?, has left the question up to blind faith, much of which is taken out of context and applied quite liberally to justify various religious themes, but it is nonetheless interesting as a concept and further thought-provoking when you begin to explore energetic resonance.  It has opened a field of study that has scientists thinking about the way in which we communicate and how that success or failure in communication affects our environment and the health of our communities.  While any advances in science on these issues are unlikely to change the political discourse in the immediate or even long-term future, it is important I think for us to continue to evolve on this front and to consider the science of words and thoughts and how deeply they may affect our actions and intentions in the world.  We are a species that continues to add information to our collective consciousness and evolve together, which if Newberg and Waldman are to be believed has happened with our increasing natural propensity for cooperation and will continue to evolve as we look toward a new cooperative future.

New Consciousness

So as we find ourselves mired in a heated political race, and we recognize that both sides will use words, true or otherwise to paint the other side as an enemy that must be defeated lest our world come tumbling down.  As we begin to understand that the words used by an  aristocratic few to divide us into corners that protect deep power structures cause us harm, both physically and emotionally, and additionally cut us off from our communities…  What are we going to do about it?  What can we do it about it?  We can begin by choosing our words carefully.  We can practice compassion in our speech and try to envision the world, nay the universe, as one.  If we can see ourselves in our “enemy” as well as in our reflection, the world around us, and in all that we create, we can begin to heal our self-inflicted wounds.  We do not purposefully hurt ourselves, though we often cause ourselves much suffering by wishing ill on others or by judging others actions through lenses tinted only with our vision of the world.  As I mentioned above, I often spout my opinions loudly and without space for response or discussion.  Often times, the language I use is polarizing and amounts to nothing but regurgitated rhetoric that I willingly consume from sources that do not seek cooperation in community, but sensational turmoil whose purpose is really about profit.   I recognize that this causes me harm.  This robs me of the ability to learn from others and to understand better their unique view of the world.  In essence, I close myself off to a part of me that is yet undiscovered.  This does not mean that I agree with an elected official that broadcasts unpleasant views of terrible acts of violence against women, but when that person speaks with conviction and true faith, I do myself a diservice to count him as an enemy, rather than see him as part of the whole and seek to find a common cooperative spirit.  I do not pretend to think that because I hope for this cooperation myself that I will be met with that which I seek, but if I use words that sever that potential connection, I have done nothing but cut away part of myself.

Solidarity

The concept of Solidarity in the broadest sense is one that I am increasingly trying to employ in the way I think and speak about any issue.  For years I was a single issue person, at least at any given time.  Generally that amounted to my concern for the environment, and the words I used to rant on the subject, were often offered without consideration for how they affected other issues or people.  As my concern for the environment gave room to a recognition of the connection to nutrition and food, and that connection made space for connections to water use and quality, and water gave way to racial and social injustice which in turn introduced economics and power structures as a concern I began to see where I had been insensitive or where I’d simply not thought deeply enough about what I was saying.  All of these issues and more are connected, and none of them, acted on alone, or without concern for the others will do much good for the whole of which I am only a part.  I must, therefore, choose my words carefully.  If we seek the common ground, our incremental strides forward will expose those places where we still have work to do.

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If you would like to read more, please check out Jaysen Waller at The Metta Garden Here

Or Esther Emery at Church in the Canyon Here

Thanks for reading…