The Power of Words

“ Thank God for dead soldiers.” “Thank God for AIDS.” “God sent the shooter.” These are the signs frequently seen being held by members of the Westboro Baptist Church at the funeral of dead soldiers and other countless victims. Families are helpless to their endless efforts to disrupt their loved ones funeral ceremonies. They continue to hold various protests all across the country with no regards to hurting grieving families. They are not limited to just funerals they also protest concerts and other events. They are well aware of their rights to freedom of speech and the power behind their words and they continue to exercise that right to the absolute fullest.

The power of words. Words can uplift people or tear them down. They can cause wars or initiate peace. This is important for you to understand because words have the power to give life and to take it away and for this reason it is imperative that your words are utilized with great care.

There are three key elements I would like for you to take away from this speech. These are the power of negative words, the power of coded language, and the power of positive words.

Ryan Halligan, Megan Meier, Hope Witsell, Tyler Clementi. What do all of these people have in common? All were victims of cyberbullying. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 20% of kids who are cyberbullied think about suicide, and 1 in 10 actually attempt it. Suicide is the No. 3 killer among teens in the United States. Negative words can have a substantial impact on an individual’s state of mind. This is yet another example on how harmful words can be.

Positive and negative words are not always easy to identify. Coded language has the power to influence people, minds, and emotions and can cause stereotypical associations, which can in turn lead to prejudicial behavior.

Example:

According to Calvin TerBeek of the University of Minnesota Law School, A George H. W. Bush campaign advertisement survey used the term “inner city” when asking respondents whether or not to allow more prisons or support anti poverty programs. The term generated a strong reaction in the minds of conservatives so much so that they favored more prisons over spending money to create anti poverty programs. This showed that racially explicit terms were not even needed for a negative racial correlation to be made in the minds of some Americans.

This behavior can be traced back to Lee Atwater’s Southern Strategy where he explained in an interview how to relay racial messages to conservative audiences without explicitly using racially charged language.

Surveys have revealed that coded language has often been used to shape law and policy which marginalizes African Americans and other minority groups. These laws reflected biases; on how courts sentenced crack cocaine users which is considered a drug used by poor minorities’ vs Cocaine users, considered to be a high end drug used by rich White Americans. First time Crack users often saw prison sentences while first time Cocaine users were more likely to be sent to rehab and or receive community service.

Let’s close by acknowledging the power of words in a positive manner. Positive words have the power to engage, motivate, inspire, build confidence and summon courage. Words can either hurt or heal, inflame hatred or raise spirits. Used wisely, words can unleash the best in us.

Throughout history words have been used to start movements, lead army’s and change history.

In Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address he called on Americans to dedicate themselves to “the unfinished work” of those who had fought at Gettysburg, thus joining America’s founding ideal of equality with African Americans’ aspirations for liberty. Lincoln advocated for a government “of the people, by the people, for the people” to bring about “a new birth of freedom” in America. He not only inspired the North to continue the fight, he forever changed America.

Dr. Martin Luther King led the civil rights movement by peacefully pursuing a vision of racial justice. He lead marches and participated in sit- ins to invoke a change of behavior from a nation that had not provided to all the freedoms promised by it’s founding fathers. Dr. King drew inspiration from both his Christian faith and the peaceful teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. His speeches were bold, triumphant and like Lincoln his oratory skills were masterful. His most famous speech I have a dream drew a crowd of close to 200,000 people on the lawns surrounding the Lincoln Monument. The speech powered a movement that eventually changed laws and gave African Americans the right to vote thus giving them a path to better their livelihood.

Former President Barack Obama also used powerful words and oratory skills to address many issues in our nation. In his speech entitled A More Perfect Union Obama attempted to address the complexity of the ongoing problems with race and how people of color feel about how this nation has treated them. He addressed how the nation is seen thru the eyes of his white grandmother while also giving his perspective on how he and other African American’s saw America. He also address the true equality and how hope and unity was important in bringing our nation together to make it a stronger and more perfect union. Here are some of the words spoken by President Obama at his first inauguration. Hear the words and discern them…

“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation. But in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

Words are powerful tools. They can mobilize people and inspire change or corrupt humanity and produce dread. Words can be negative, coded, or positive. So, I implore you Brothers and Sisters to use them wisely.

I want to end with the beginning lines from former President Barack Obama’s 1st inauguration speech. “We have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.” What do these words inspire within you? Can you feel the power behind them? I encourage you to meditate on these words and from this day forward speak life, edification, and love on your fellow man.

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