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When Language Turns Violent

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A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was a director of external relations for a multistate Planned Parenthood affiliate. When I was hired, the affiliate enjoyed the widespread support that made its daily activities almost banal, even as they were essential to the women and families that we served.

However, on my first day of work, we struggled through a major protest—the first ever in the organization’s history. For two years, our affiliate was targeted by an aggressive anti-choice group, which brought people in from all over the country to taunt women seeking services, chain themselves to cars they parked in our driveway, storm our waiting rooms, and lock themselves to whatever they could find—handrails, chairs, car undercarriages, or each other. And they would call us names.

I am not writing to discuss abortion. I am writing about the dangers of name calling.

As our organization’s spokesperson, the person most frequently in the media, and the public face of the cause, I got called the most names of anyone. Baby killer was the most frequent, of course. They also called me a sinner, and said I was evil. I was told how sorry they felt for me, how much they prayed for me. I got hate mail. I got pushed, shoved, screamed at, and jammed so hard against a wall I was bruised for days.

The name calling was the most terrifying. I can still recall the faces contorted in twisted passion, mouths stretched open to unleash the hordes of anger, eyes glazed over in blind righteousness. These eyes never saw me. They never registered the color of my hair, the cut of my coat, or the youth in my face. All they saw was the label they had erroneously branded me with.

Name calling is the precursor to all kinds of horrors. If I call you a “fag,” or “dirty liberal,” or “evildoer,” instead of “John,” I have already begun to create the distance necessary to objectify you and to dehumanize you. And objectification and dehumanization are necessary for violence to occur. If I call you by your name, I may think of other people I know with a similar name—memories may come unbidden of happy times, of personality quirks, and of peculiarities. There is a reason people say you should never name the farm animals you plan to eat.

When I think back to those faces twisted in hate and those furious words being spewed at me, I am reminded of this: name calling happens at a distance. And in that distance, anything—terrible things—are possible.

The people who stormed our clinics would not have been able to shove and push me if they knew me. If they had considered me as I was—a young woman, just twenty-five years old, newly married, fixing up an old house, recently moved (in fact, to the same small town where the opposition leader grew up)—they would have found the intimacy of close physical contact (even hostile physical contact) difficult. Perhaps too difficult to bear. If they had spoken to me, they would have seen that I was not a baby killer. Or evil. They would have seen at least some of my inherent humanity. They might still have been moved to violence, but it would have been against a person, not a label or a word.

I am a writer. I know that language has great power. Every day, I spend hours in the pursuit of careful word choices. I also have more than a little personal experience of the deranged and mentally ill. I know that they cannot be reasoned with. I also know that they can easily be driven wild. Often, all it takes is a single phrase—sometimes just one word.

This is why it is so flagrantly irresponsible for those with the biggest soapboxes to be spewing such incendiary vitriol. They cannot control who is listening to them, but they can control the words they use. When they use violent words, they are in part responsible for creating an environment where violent deeds become possible.

As we mourn the violence against Gabrielle Giffords and all the others who were unlucky enough to be in her particular circle of hell yesterday, my wish is the same as expressed by so many: for a politer discourse and a more gentle conversation. The rules we learned early in life—to play fairly, or to say nothing if we had nothing nice to say—continue to be the most important rules of adult conduct as well. It is true that sticks and stones can break our bones, but it is also true that words can not only hurt—they can kill.  


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