The worlds we build — and destroy — with words
Words have long been humanity’s most useful tool.
Few have described this more eloquently than Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt”l, the former Chief Rabbi of the UK, who passed away last year:
With words God created the universe: “And God said, Let there be…and there was.” Through words He communicated with humankind. In Judaism, language itself is holy … God created the natural universe with words.
God, in the narrative of Genesis, could have chosen any medium with which to create the world. He could have used a paintbrush to create life forms, or He could have merely thought the world into existence. Instead, he chose speech. He did this to convey a message that is no less significant today as it was in the days of old. In Sacks’ words:
“We create worlds with words.”
To put it in scientific terms: Yuval Noah Harari, the acclaimed Israeli author of the New York Times bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, argues that the distinguishing characteristic of Homo sapiens is its unique ability to create complex systems of communication. Other species can communicate, but only on a basic level. But the human affinity for creating complex languages has allowed us to communicate beliefs, value systems, and/or myths to others that eventually result in mass cooperation – cooperation on a scale that no other species has been able to achieve. Language has allowed humans to develop rich cultures and thriving civilizations. Harari’s anthropological message is the same as Rabbi Sacks’ religious one: worlds emerge from words.
Anything that can be used for good can also be used for bad, and words are no exception. While words can bring rights for minorities, they can also lead to their subjugation at the hands of the majority. While words can bring freedom, they can also bring tyranny. While words can make society progress, they can also make it regress. While words can build worlds, they also have the power to destroy them.
Alternatively, to paraphrase Joe Biden: while words can inspire, they can also incite. Irrespective of one’s views of the President-elect, that is an unavoidable truth.
We saw the power of words on display last week at the US Capitol insurrection. Instead of being used to build and inspire, words were used to destroy and incite.
Thousands of people, present because of the disproven falsehoods that were fed to them about the election in an effort to “stop the steal”, attended a Trump-organized rally in Washington D.C. on the day Congress was to conclusively certify Joe Biden as the winner of the election. But this was no mere demonstration. Trump urged his supporters to “fight much harder” against “bad people”; affirmed that his followers can “never take back our country with weakness, [that they] have to show strength and [they] have to be strong”; and told them that “when [they] catch somebody in a fraud, [they] are allowed to go by very different rules.” He invited them to “march over to the Capitol.” “If you don’t fight like hell,” he asserted, “you’re not going to have a country anymore,” also proclaiming, “We will never give up. We will never concede.”
The speech he delivered was deeply terrifying. Ultimately, whether it was from his speech that day or the lies he had been spewing beforehand, the destruction we saw was brought about as a result of words.
Throughout the past four years, many people have dismissed much of Trump’s problematic use of words. “He’s Trump,” some would say. “He’s rough around the edges; he’s politically incorrect. Sometimes he phrases things wrongly. He isn’t a conventional politician, and that’s precisely why people like him. Don’t overreact to mere words.” But what people, among whom I include myself, didn’t fully understand was the full power of those words. The power they had to foment a political climate of falsehood, conspiracy theories, and extremism. The power they had to bring people to storm the US Capitol with QAnon, neo-Nazi, and white supremacist symbols. The power they had to result in the first siege of the US Capitol since the War of 1812.
Whenever a significant event happens, we should always think about what we can learn from it and how we can apply what we learn to our personal lives. Here is the simple message I think we should internalize after last week’s events: words matter. The way we speak matters. Problematic rhetoric should not be dismissed as “just” words, or “just” political incorrectness. There is a direct correlation between dangerous words and violent action. We aren’t the President, and we don’t have such a wide-ranging audience as he does. But words are powerful even coming from regular people, people like you and me. While we don’t have presidential powers, we do have another type of power, one constantly used in everyday life. It is a power that can be used for society’s betterment if used to bring people together, but one that can also lead to society’s destruction if used to tear people apart. Such is the power of words. The choice of how we use this power is solely up to us.
The way we talk indicates who we are. The words we choose demonstrate who we choose to be. Let us all internalize the timeless message that can be learned from last week’s horrific events, that while words can build worlds, they can, if not chosen carefully, be used to destroy them.
Let’s use them to build.