2016-01 From the President: Words Matter

Words Matter—

Freedom of speech is a right granted to us all by the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. We hold this right dear. This right is further protected for University professors by the tenure system. It sets the tone and standard for respectful exchange of ideas throughout the university community. It is core to the pursuit of knowledge.

Freedom of speech is a profound privilege. It inspires creativity. It allows the dissemination of literature, poetry, and music. It informs science, politics, and religions. It creates public dialogue among diverse people, in the press and the electronic media. It is a powerful motivator, moving individuals to laughter or tears, to great feats, or violent acts. It can embolden crowds to cheer or jeer, to form mobs or to disperse safely. It is used in protests, to right the wrongs of society as well as to incite evil acts.

The power of the pen is well understood. We know that a picture is worth a thousand words. Yet the power of words is often ignored or given short shrift. In recent months we have witnessed the power of words to incite anger and fear. We have seen words used in protest to try to right injustices (real or imagined). “Black Lives Matter” and “Don’t Shoot” have started a genuine national social movement around police brutality and social justice in general. These words matter!

“History tells us that violent speech breeds violent acts,” wrote Sara Lipton in the December 13, 2015, New York Times. We have heard more violent speech in the past year than most of us would like, and we cannot ignore its impact on behavior. Any psychologist can tell you about the impact on a child who is derided or shamed or bullied. Words that instill hopelessness or a lack of self-esteem in a child can lead to all sorts of anti-social and unproductive behavior as an adult. Violent words and negative attitudes on the part of politicians can give others permission to be violent and to carry out their own frustrations by lashing out on innocent bystanders.

To further quote Sara Lipton, “…history does show that a heightened rhetoric against a certain group can incite violence against that group…. When a group is labeled hostile and brutal, its members are more likely to be treated with hostility and brutality.” We have seen this effect throughout history with the demonizing of a class or group of people; right now it is the Muslims who are most victimized by violent words.

Everyone knows that you are not allowed to shout FIRE in a crowded theater (unless of course, there is a fire). But we do not seem to consider the direct and tertiary power of words that either insult or praise—words that tear down or build up, words that destroy or embolden.

President Kaler called for the University community to embrace diversity and reject violence against Muslims in our midst. In a December 17, 2015, e-mail he wrote, “Take time to learn about cultures and experiences with which you are not yet familiar. Reaffirm your colleagues’ contributions to our community.”

His words matter; our words matter. May we take seriously the burden of the privilege of free speech!


— Jean Kinsey, UMRA President