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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sticks and Stones by Will Shonbrun

Sticks and Stones…
By Will Shonbrun

Despite the old adage it’s known by most that the impact of words – harsh, accusatory, judgmental or condemnatory – last and fester far longer than bodily bruises. Words matter. Ask the preacher or the politician or the pundit. Ask the dictator. First come the words, then the actions.

Since the latest tragic event in Tucson we are hearing from politicians and pundits alike – some of them – to turn down the inflammatory and violence-oriented rhetoric, to cool the hate speech, and to understand that such words have consequences, as we’ve been told so many times. It happens every time these kinds of brutally insane and heart-wrenching rampages occur.

Of course words matter. It’s an old, old story, but we’ve only to look a short way to past history: the rationale for stolen land because its inhabitants were godless savages; an excuse for slavery, one of the depths of human depravity, because its victims weren’t fully human; the Nazis’ rise to power on the defamation of Jews; the oppression and subjugation against women and minorities and their relegation to second-class status; the McCarthy Era, and the arousing of our nation to go to war in East Asia or the Middle East through fear and the demonization of some “enemy.”

Calls for more civil discourse, less personal attacks, and easing off violent, militant words and symbols are heard throughout the land, as always follows tragic, senseless killings, and while this is the proper and right response, it is undermined by a fundamental hypocrisy in our culture: We are a violent people.

We tell our children that problems cannot and should not be solved by violence, and that our differences cannot be rectified through aggression, but what do we show them on the world stage?

We invade countries that we disagree with when we believe it is in our interest to do so, and we manufacture the reasons and rationales to get our people to accept, support and fight in these wars. But ‘invade’ is a too surgical, too clinical word. It does not describe the reality of the act. A recent example: Before our military set foot in Iraq in 2003 we rained bombs and missiles on sections of the country for two weeks. Remember “shock and awe”?

Those bombs and missiles not only destroyed, rendered into rubble, buildings and infrastructure, they tore apart human beings: families, babies and children of people who just happened to be living in the wrong place, at the wrong time. These were other human beings, no different than our families, friends and neighbors; no different than us. Our military, before and during the invasion of Iraq killed, brutally and violently murdered and maimed a countless number of people no different in their hopes, dreams and desires than you or I. That’s the reality of war. Indiscriminate bombing and so-called collateral killing was done in Vietnam and Cambodia as well, and there’s no reason to believe it will not happen again.

We tell our children not to engage in violence to solve their problems and it’s the first thing we resort to. We exhort our children and our fellow citizens to eschew violence and physical aggression while at the same time manufacturing and selling arms – machinery that kills people and destroys cities and countryside – to practically all the nations of the world. We spend about half of our entire budget fighting and preparing to wage wars. How can we tell our children, tell ourselves, to seek non-violent solutions when our actions belie our words?

We are currently cautioned by our leaders, the putative more reasonable and intelligent ones, to cool the rhetoric and incitement to violence-laden language, while at the same time sending drones to kill designated enemies regardless of who else happens to get killed or wounded in the process. We preach non-violence and at the same time justify the use of torture. Torture! We have a Congressman recently calling for the assassination of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange – not a trial to establish innocence or guilt, but an assassination; a mob hit. This is and other such utterances are the level of discourse from some of our political leaders and extreme right wing pundits.

How can we expect our people to behave respectfully, to debate differences honestly and logically, to keep our national discourse civil when the reality of how we act and what we say projects just the opposite? Only when we stop exhorting and resorting to violence in order to get what we want will we be able to bridge the divides that have grown deeper and wider in our country. Only when our actions mirror our words will we be able to advise our children and tell ourselves and the rest of the world how to live in peace. Will such a time ever come?

Will Shonbrun is a writer who lives in Sonoma, CA.