Them’s Fighting Words
By Rev. Marc Tibbs
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Try telling that to Akron City Council after it stepped into the always murky waters of the longstanding Arab-Israeli conflict by passing a resolution last month in support of Israel in its war with the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
On Oct. 7, Hamas launched a surprise attack on the Israel-Gaza border killing or kidnapping hundreds of Israelis. Israel responded by invading Gaza killing thousands of Palestinians, a significant number of whom were innocent children.
Within days of the Akron resolution supporting Israel in the conflict, protesters in support of Palestinians swarmed City Council contending that Council was ignoring what some considered to be Israel’s heavy-handed response.
The Council resolution was just a collection of words.
But don’t try minimizing the importance of words to the three Ivy League university presidents who were publicly excoriated last week by Trump-supporting U.S. Representative Elise Stefanik, Rep. NY, over whether they felt speech calling for Jewish genocide was conduct worthy of punishment on their campuses. One president has since resigned, and another is still on the Ivy League hot seat for not answering that question in a way that suited Stefanik.
All this drama over how we use words. As a pastor, I’ve always preached that words are important: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh.” (John 14)
But the hypocritical nature in which words are being weaponized ought to cause one to wonder whether our response to hateful words is overblown.
Take for example the phrase, “Never again.” On the lips of Jewish person this phrase connotes a commitment to never again allow an event like the Holocaust to happen. According to the Jerusalem Post, the phrase was popularized in the United States in 1968 by a militant Jewish rabbi who intended the phrase to be a violent call to arms against forces who would dare subjugate and persecute Jewish people.
In this way, the phrase, “Never Again,” is no different than the highly objectionable Arab phrase, “From the River to the Sea.” This latter phrase also is a call to arms for Palestinians who use the phrase to communicate their undying loyalty to reclaim the land now known as Israel and once known as Palestine. That land is bordered by the Jordan River on the east, and the Mediterranean Sea on the west (river to the sea). The phrase is seen as a call to dissolve the state of Israel and return the land to the Palestinians who occupied it prior to 1948.
Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American herself, was recently censured by a majority of her colleagues in part for posting a video on social media with Palestinians chanting the phrase. Tlaib described the phrase as “an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence.”
Try telling that to the 234 House members, including some from her own party, who voted to openly disapprove of her behavior. Or try telling that to an Israeli on the border of Gaza where Palestinian rocket fire routinely rains upon their neighborhoods.
But in the final analysis these are just phrases – a collection of words; human breath articulated through the mechanics of speech – evanescent, disappearing quickly from the environment; and yet, they induce such violent and lingering reactions.
Consider the racial slur that has come to be used to describe Black people. Somehow society has banned that word from ever again being spoken. Like children, we refer to it only as “the N-word” as if the word itself has some mystical, dark power that we dare not let loose by saying it out loud.
It’s just a word. In fact, in the case of the N-word, it’s simply an appellation which demonstrated that southern people couldn’t articulately pronounce the word, Negro. For them the word was pronounced “Negrah,” and you can easily figure out where it went from there. The negative connotations attached to it are only a construct. Racist southerners and others would have held those connotations no matter what word they attached to them.
The power isn’t in the word, it’s in the meaning that one derives from it.
Whether in Akron or Jerusalem the weaponizing of words is an act of futility in a society that’s seemingly always itching for a fight. No matter your intent behind the hateful words you use, they can only hurt me if I agree with them.