and the True Power of Words
Sandra Torrey, L-SAW 2006
Whoever came up with
the idiom, "sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never heart me,"
was greatly mistaken. Words, as harmless as they may seem, hold incredible
power and potential. Verbal violence could easily be labeled the "seed of
violence" because that's where it all begins. Provocative name-calling and
racial slurs are the initial stages of deep-seeded hatred responsible for the
121 murders, 302 assaults, and 301 cross burnings that occurred between 1980
and 1986 (John Leo). Words create an emotional response. A hostile or
derogatory remark can precipitate a violent response which, in turn, can evoke
further feelings of paranoia and hatred. In Geoffrey Canada's Fist Stick
Knife Gun, and in a wide variety of modern films, verbal violence is the
seed from which all other violence springs.
An evil word has the
power to bring out the worst in people, and society will teach the innocent how
to respond to the word with an act more wicked than the word that started the
fray. Survival is an obvious necessity of life and, as such, is one of the key
promoters of violence. When a person's life is in danger, everything in our
society suggests that it's natural for that person to do whatever it takes to
stay alive. Especially in the inner-cities, violence such as fighting is a
learned behavior that's used as a means of survival. In a city like the Bronx, gangs have to make a name for themselves. They induce fear in others as a form of
protection. These kids aren't dumb; they know the power of words. When Kevin,
one of the guys in Canada's gang, got himself into trouble with a man much
bigger than he, they all knew why. The furious man approached them saying
"[h]e called my aunt a bitch, and I'm gonna kick his ass" (59). In this
instance, the somewhat improper phrase, "don't let your mouth write a check
your butt can't cash," takes on great meaning. Kevin got what was coming to
him that day because of his big mouth. He shot back at the man, "[y]eah, I'm
Kevin, and you ain't gonna kick my ass, motherfucker" (59). This
response provoked the man even further. The word "shot" fits well here because
words are weapons. In some cases, being able to "talk the talk" is enough to
keep these kids from harm. Using words to create fear can buy people time, but
not a lifetime. It doesn't take long for fear to turn into anger, and for
anger to progress into violence.
The fear of being
shot, sometimes for no reason at all, sends these youngsters the message to "make
a preemptive strike, shoot first even if you're not sure that your life is
threatened at that moment" (68). This situation can easily be compared to
satisfying people's needs. The first necessities are food, shelter, and
protection. Once the basic needs are met, then things like comfort,
entertainment, and possessions become the desired achievements. This pattern
is repeated as the children in the cities learn how to "first stay alive, even
kill the other person, then worry about the rest" (69). This same scenario is
portrayed in the film Monster as Aileen Wuornos defends herself in a
life threatening situation. After raping her, a man Aileen thought to be just
another client in her career of prostitution, was going to end her life. In
defense, she shoots and kills the man. An intense emotion of fear takes over
Aileen's mind and begins to grow. Violent words that induce such fear are also
capable of deriving intense anger. This becomes particularly dangerous in
settings where society teaches prejudice and intolerance. When people reach
the point of not being able to control their deep-seeded anger, hate crimes
start to show their ugly faces. The town of Laramie, Wyoming would know all
about this terminology.
The Laramie Project
is an inspiring film about the murder of a 21 year old homosexual college
student. When interviewed, many people in the town admit to being against the
"homosexual lifestyle." The most common reason for these beliefs is that
homosexuality is not acceptable in the Catholic faith. Religion brainwashes
people to think in certain prescribed ways instead of thinking for themselves.
This is how prejudice ideas are maintained in our society, and over time the
fear people have grows into hate; hate derived from "the word of the Lord." To
a great majority of people in this world, words of the Lord and words from the
Bible, Torah, Koran, or any religiously affiliated literatures are the most
powerful words of all. The unseen aspect behind this is that being the most
powerful words, they are also the most dangerous. The prejudices taught by
religion prohibit people from truly understanding those who are different from
themselves. The incapability to understand grows into not wanting to
understand. Just as in every reason given for the prevalence of violence, the
"snowball effect" is the best way to describe how these situations get out of
control. It all starts with words that evoke fear (the fear a couple of boys
in Laramie had of homosexuals), that evolves into hatred, intense hatred
provokes a person to act on their feelings, and in the end an innocent person
ends up dead. The denial that such violence exists only worsens the matter and
ensures that nothing will be done about it. The mother of a close friend of
Matthew's, the young man who was killed, discusses this problem and how many
people believe that "we don't grown children like that here" (The Laramie
Project). Words again have power, in this case the power to keep a curtain
over the eyes of the world, enabling violence to continue on its destructive
path. Obviously, we do grow children like that here. In fact, America grows children like that all over the country. Religion, although a prevalent
teacher of intolerance, is not the only aspect in our society responsible for
providing such lessons.
many times passed down through family generations. It's remarkable how
influential early childhood experiences are on young boys and girls. Theories
of personality psychology suggest that our expectations of people and the world
in general are all based on these experiences. Derek, the main character in American
History X, is a prime example of this theory. His father, Dennis, taught
him intolerance and racism at a young age. At the dinner table, Dennis starts
ranting about minorities getting firemen jobs when there were plenty of white
men who scored higher on their tests. He claims that blacks are being given
jobs just because they are black and their employer wants to look good. In a
warning to Derek he says "[l]ook at me, Derek. I mean it. If we keep givin'
niggers everything, there'll be nothing left for us" (American History X).
These words, coming from his father, become engraved in Derek's mind as the
truth of the world he lives in. While on the job as a town fireman, Dennis was
shot and killed by a black man, which immensely strengthened Derek's racist
beliefs. These early events amplify into feelings of fear, hate, and lack of
respect Derek has for people who are different from him, otherwise known as
leads him to blame blacks for his father's death. First announcing his hatred
towards blacks, he then uses all minorities as scapegoats for the country's
problems. Derek's prejudice mentality all derives from his father's words of
advice; from those few moments at the dinner table. When talking with a
reporter after his father's murder, Derek firmly expresses that "[i]mmigration,
welfare, AIDS ... they're all the problems of the non-white. These problems are
rooted in the black community, the Hispanic community, the Asian ... every
non-Protestant group in our society" (American History X). Any fear
Derek had endured due to his father's murder he later turns into hate. His
acts of violence start in these words, which lead to even more outrageous acts,
such as the murder of two black men and the ransacking of a local grocery store
owned by minorities. People have been known to act on their fear or hatred,
even after the very slightest provocation, which is not usually intentional.
Words induce fear,
which creates paranoia that festers in thousands of minds. Monster,
which is rightly named so, does an incredible job of showing how the character
Aileen evolves into an uncontrollable serial killer. Starting with a
justifiable act of self-defense, a seed has been planted in her mind that men
are out to kill her. The psychological shock and fear grows and grows until
Aileen can no longer differentiate between when she is in danger and when she's
not. This is also demonstrated in Canada's novel when young kids are shooting
people left and right. Children growing up on the streets quickly adopt the
mentality of "kill or be killed." The majority of the time, life in jail beats
death on the street. For this reason, strengthening laws against murder and
assault by enforcing harsher punishments of extended jail time has proven to be
ineffective. On the streets, not everyone is out to kill you, but how do you
know who is? Even police officers have come to think in these terms.
Attempting to enforce laws in an inner-city frequently exposes the officers to
several life threatening and dangerous situations. Therefore, just like
everyone else, the officers "end up treating everyone as if they were guilty
until proven otherwise" (128). Such chaos erupts from the words taught by our
society and the paranoia induced by the fear they instill.
Words are weapons.
Whether taught by religion or childhood experiences, words are responsible for
engraving fear into our minds. Continuing on the path to absolute chaos, fear
evolves into paranoia and hatred, which only leads to devastating acts of
violence. In a war against violence, knowledge is the ultimate weapon, and the
most important one in making our way to a future of peace and acceptance.
American History X. dir.
Tony Kaye, New Line Cinema, 1998.
Canada, Geoffrey. Fist Stick
Knife Gun. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1995.
Monster. dir. Patty Jenkins,
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2003.
The Laramie Project. dir. Moisés Kaufman, Home Box Office, 2002.