Seth Cohen
Applying Optimistic Thinking to Complex Community Challenges
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The consequence of words

Sometimes there are no words to describe how we feel. No adequate way to express the emotion that wells within us. That is the way I felt this past Shabbat after I walked out of my morning worship service at our Jewish temple and first heard the news of the massacre in Pittsburgh.

Stunned silence. I had just witnessed the joy of a double B’nai Mitzvah of a sister and brother—a ceremony of commitment and action. At the very same time in Pittsburgh, a Jewish baby boy was being given his name—a ceremony of dedication and faith. Both traditions that connect the Jewish people across generations. Both occurring on the very day that Jews read the Torah portion describing how the biblical patriarch and matriarch Abraham and Sarah welcomed strangers in their home.

But it was during the ceremony in Pittsburgh that a senseless, incomprehensible tragedy struck. Eleven Jews murdered simply for being Jewish. A despicable act inspired by words of hate and animosity, representing the very opposite of the welcoming and generous spirit of Sarah and Abraham. The murder of these eleven Jews was committed in the spirit of hating the stranger, of fearing the other. We know this because we can read the killer’s words. Words shaped by those who traffic in fear mongering, bullying and bigotry. Words spoken in whispers from the dark corners of the Internet as well as shouted from the stages of public rallies by our nation’s foremost political leaders. Words that also, in the very same week, incited racially motivated murders in Kentucky and spawned mail bombs that terrorized individuals across the country.

The consequences of these words of hatred are not surprising. We know from history what they can do. The language of dehumanization and nativism, of racism and anti-Semitism, are the words that have created systemic enslavements, genocides and internments. The words of sexism, homophobia and transphobia have been used to delegitimize and denigrate more than half of society. We have seen the devastation of racist greed and evil of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. We have seen 6 million Jews and countless others killed by systemic anti-Semitism and fascism.

We know that words of anger and hate can translate into acts of rage and violence, and yet, far too many of us continue to ignore them at our own peril.  In doing so, we have been blind to how words of hatred directed at others can be quickly directed toward us.  But hate speech doesn’t respect boundaries, it bleeds into the actions of violence that spill actual blood.  When we forget that what is said is far to often a precursor of what will be done, we forget what history has told us time and again.

Far too many of us have forgotten the consequences of words.

But it is not too late. In fact, now is exactly the time we need to not only think more deeply and act more boldly to confront the hate in our midst, but we also need to speak more lovingly and listen more inclusively. The natural instinct when confronted with acts of hatred is to create more confrontation rather than foster more compassion. To speak words of rejection rather than words of resilience. To conflate words of resentment with words of resistance. When we do this, we too forget the consequences of our words—and we deepen the cycle of verbal recrimination that tears society apart.

The anti-Semitic murders in Pittsburgh, the hate crime killings in Kentucky and the mailing of bombs around America this past week remind us that verbal seeds of hate can grow into something more lethal. But it should also be a moment where we recognize that verbal seeds of love can also grow into something more powerful. That was the idea being ritually expressed during that bloody morning in Pittsburgh—a young child was entering into a covenant of faith and a community of love. His parents were making that commitment in the hope that this small child, a seed they planted in this world, will grow into adult who will help repair our world.

All of us need to make a commitment, not only in words but also in action, that we will do all we can to combat the language of hate that fosters actions of evil. We need to examine our own language to see if the shapes of our conversations reflect the shape of our hearts. The more we understand the consequences of words, the more we can change how those words are heard and how they are used to create change and to ignite, not enflame, community.

Sometimes there are no words to express how we feel. Yet we must search for them and speak them with loving-kindness, hope and optimism. Especially on our darkest days.

May the memory of the eleven victims in Pittsburgh be for blessings that their lives are not in vain but are blessings that we speak through our actions.

And through our words.

About the Author
Seth Cohen is the founder of Applied Optimism, a consulting and community design lab that helps organizations and leaders design and apply optimistic solutions to complex organizational, communal and individual challenges. You can reach him at www.appliedoptimism.com
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