August 3, 2019
First I want to say that my heart goes out to the many families who lost loved ones this weekend and last across America. There really are no words of condolences that are enough. I am in the midst of preparing a new post in response to the recent mass shootings, but as I prepare I look back at a previous post which still applies.
WORDS MATTER Originally published October, 2018
Charleston. Charlottesville. Pittsburgh.
NO! This cannot be happening again. We can not be silent.
We are grieving but we will not be silent.
On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, a twenty one year old white supremacist murdered nine African Americans who were attending a prayer service at the historic Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. Yesterday, October 27, 2018, eleven Jews were gunned down at the historic synagogue, Tree of Life, in the community of Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, Pa. “Tree of Life is a part of our beating heart. It is a part of our soul,” said Joel Rubin, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and member of the community.
The truth is right now, it is a part of all of our hearts, all of our souls.
This is not about politics. This is about human life and an appreciation of all lives…equally. This is about words and how much they matter.
A War of Words
In my book, The Weeping Time, I wrote about what preceded the Civil War and the 620,000 lives that were lost in that tumultuous war:
The South may have started the war, but it could be said that war was brewing between the North and the South for many years prior. Though both were economically dependent on the other, there were great tensions pertaining to the question of the extension of slavery into new territories such as Kansas and Nebraska. The difference in each region’s economies also contributed to the conflict. The South with its four million slaves was largely agrarian whereas the North was a center for highly industrialized factories. Ironically, these same factories depended on the raw materials harvested by slaves such as cotton and tobacco for their operation. Both regions also differed in character. The Southern Gentleman, for example, saw himself as associated with the older notions of European nobility. He was the lord of his manor, and those four million slaves were expected to be loyal vassals who served him at will.[i]
In defending slavery, they were not simply defending the institution itself, but their manhood.[ii] Before the war, this defense took place in a war of words. “Through bloodless conquests of the pen, ….” they hoped to “surpass in grandeur and extent the triumphs of war.” [iii] They saw themselves as responding to the attacks of William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper The Liberator that he established in the 1830’s. They were also responding to attacks on the ground from Nat Turner in the Virginia slave revolt in 1831 and later John Brown in 1859. The editor of The Southern Review, John Underwood, declared defiantly: Northern assailants should be met and “never suffered to enter the citadel till they walk over our prostrate bodies.” [iv]
It was a war of words at first but also a war between two ideologies. Many Southerners like Calhoun did not believe that all men had a right to liberty and rejected Jefferson’s claims of inalienable rights.[v] They could not accept the notion that black people could be accepted as free persons into the national fabric of American life. Such a fundamental conflict ultimately was not resolved in words but in war with the South striking the first blow but finding themselves eventually outmanned and outresourced by Northern forces.
Freedom is not license
So the war started first with words. Yet if there is one thing that distinguishes America from so many countries around the world is the principle of freedom of speech enshrined in The Constitution. Freedom, however, is not license. It is not license to say anything you want. If I cry, “Fire!” in a crowded theater and that causes a needless stampede, I should be liable for such speech. I may be free to say something, but also have to consider the consequence of my speech. Furthermore, in order to preserve this much treasured freedom of speech, I MUST consider that freedom is not license. I must choose my words very carefully. And that means all of us, not just our leaders, though especially our leaders, but also the rest of us. We are all responsible for our words which may, intended or not, lead to unforeseen and regrettable actions. That said, even within these boundaries of self -restraint, I do not have to agree with the speech of others. I can disagree, agreeably. That ultimately is freedom of speech at its best: freedom to disagree agreeably. It’s the little but important thing keeping our democracy together.
Yes, words matter. We have to consider our words.
I leave off today with these words: Words of deepest condolences for the families of those who lost their lives today; words of praise for the Pittsburgh police officers who prevented an even greater carnage from taking place. And finally, words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Christian minister who along with a small group of dissenters spoke out against Hitler and his xenophobic words and actions. He and others formed the Confessing Church and gave his life dying for his beliefs.
He famously said what could be called a rallying cry for the importance of words:
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Anne C. Bailey
Author of The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History. (Cambridge University Press, 2017)
[i] John Hope Franklin, The Militant Souhttps://www.amazon.com/Weeping-Time-Largest-Auction-American/dp/1316643484th 1800-1861, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956) p?
[iii] Ibid., p. 81
Picture courtesy of Javier A. Barros vis unsplash.com