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Just Words

Why our words matter

It’s a depressing possibility that you read “Just Words” to mean “only words” or “merely words.” That isn’t what this phrase has to mean.

The events at the Capitol last week were a tragedy and a disgrace. History teaches us that the surest way to ruin a country is to prevent a peaceful transfer of power. Everyone who tried to stand in the way of democracy needs to be held accountable, both politically and, where needed, legally. 

Reckless and dishonest words got us to this point. Somehow we’re arguing whether or not someone’s words matter, but the idea that they wouldn’t simply doesn’t make sense. Isn’t it plain and obvious nonsense to even use words to say that someone’s words don’t matter?

Words always matter. We can argue about how they matter. But there’s no question about why words matter.

Words we speak or write don’t just reflect our thoughts, they harden them. They drag our thoughts out of the ether and make them firm, real. A spoken thought is easier to believe, whether or not it’s true. When Nixon said “I am not a crook,” is there any doubt that he and many others believed it?

And action always follows belief. This is why our words are a road we choose to walk, including what’s at the end of it. If you choose cruel words, you’re on a cruel path. Lawless words are a lawless path. Where do you think it leads you? You don’t choose a better road unless you use better words.

Relationships are kindled or killed with words. We use them to bring people closer. But in the heat of a moment we can say the wrong thing, and I don’t agree with the idea that we can take words back. We can’t take them back anymore than we can take a breath back. But words can be forgiven, and they can seek forgiveness.

The truth has no vessel other than words, and the same goes for lies. Our Constitution, for example, preserves indelible truths while talk radio radiates dishonesty. Over history, words—lying ones—have wreaked havoc on people. Consider QAnon believers or Proud Boys and the lies that are damaging their families, work, and communities. Lying words have made a pandemic-struck world sicker than it might have been. These are not “just words.”

And the words our leaders say multiply all of these things. What is leadership without words? A leader can’t take credit for inspiring people and then avoid condemnation for inflaming or misleading them.

Words always matter. So we need accountability for them. We need right, fair, and true words. We don’t need “just” words. We need just words.

Seeing Good at Work

Democracy thrives on engaged citizens, but the institutions that engage are us atrophying. Citizen University uses the template of faith gatherings to bring citizens together to bond through their common purpose as members of a community. The gatherings foster civic culture and relationships.

Their Civic Saturdays are held in 30 different cities throughout the country and their Civic Collaboratory draws hundreds of civic leaders. Eric Liu, the Citizen University founder, was just awarded an Ashoka Fellowship last year.

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