Ehrlick: We must choose our words more carefully

January 8, 2021 5:58 am

A protester holds a Trump flag inside the US Capitol Building near the Senate Chamber on Wednesday, January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Congress held a joint session Wednesday to ratify President-elect Joe Biden’s 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

There’s the phrase: Elections have consequences.

The day after a coup attempt at the U.S. Capitol, that phrase sounds a little plastic, a little overmatched.

Good Lord, I never thought I’d have to write “coup attempt at the U.S. Capitol.”

And if Wednesday’s rebellion has taught us anything – and by the grace of that same good Lord, I hope it has – it’s that words have equally powerful consequences.

Most of the time, as another phrase goes, journalists know a little about a lot, whereas most professionals know a lot about a little, specializing in their specific field. Yet, having spent a lifetime among words and people who debate them every day, let me tell you: Words have unbelievable power.

Words were used to divide us, as our country was tricked into believing that only patriots clothed themselves in United States flag regalia, or wore a flag lapel pin. We were suckered into believing that if someone thought differently that they were either a racist rube or a closet communist.

Words were used to spread disinformation. A burgeoning cadre of “alternative networks” peddled “alternative facts,” even as we grew callous and accepted the very dangerous idea that truth and facts were subjective. State lawmaker Barry Usher, R-Billings, was a prime example of this when he said that science about the pandemic was simply a matter of what you see on Facebook. Saying that didn’t change the deadly outcome of the disease for nearly a third of a million Americans.

Words were used to incite the action at the Capitol and Washington, D.C., Wednesday. Those people didn’t magically and spontaneously converge there. President Donald J. Trump encouraged them, told them they were justified in the anger, and applauded their action until Facebook and Twitter intervened as a means to save lives. Heaven help us when Twitter and Facebook become the leaders of discretion.

Now, words must be used to tell the truth in an unvarnished, unapologetic fashion.

And words must also be used to hold leaders accountable. The Republican leaders, like Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Matt Rosendale, must be asked tough questions about their positions, and people of all parties must not be satisfied until there are answers. We must not accept what-about-isms because what has transpired, from undermining the election to people dying at the Capitol, has no corollary or analogue.

And after that reckoning – in whatever form it takes, whether it’s removing the cancer that has rotted our system from office, or taking a new, refocused look at the responsibilities that come along with having the awesome power of free speech, those words must be precise, unflinching, and unequivocal lest someone sees enough daylight between them to think there’s a chance that what transpired on Wednesday was somehow acceptable or even patriotic.

Those same words must also be used to heal and unify. Sure, it doesn’t help that in the midst of this terrible stain on our country’s history that we have endured a once-in-several-generations-of-a-lifetime pandemic. Our social isolation has helped fuel this sort of unhinged paroxysm. It’s gotten us to believe that we are radically different than our neighbors; it’s caused some to believe the courts and government are in cahoots with communists; and it’s caused others to believe there is a cabal of child molesters that control the government so that they can indulge in their own lustful fantasies – another phrase I never thought I would write.

But here we are.

We are now at a great turning point, where we must choose whether to widen the chasm whose gaping maw threatens to tear this country apart from people who are waving flags and invoking the Founding Fathers. Or, we can choose to see each other as neighbors, with the same hopes and dreams and the same love of family and friends. Make no mistake, while time will trudge on, this is a turning point and an opportunity.

We have been torn apart by the misuse and abuse of words – words employed to create a false reality and words that sow division between races, religion and people. Now, we have an obligation, if not to ourselves, for our children and those who deserve to have the same kind of peaceful enjoyment of life that our Founders envisioned for us. We can harness the words to build a fortress around those institutions that have been so under assault – our courts, our government workers who spend a lifetime and career at keeping the country running, and the value of information that is credible, even if it doesn’t always align with our own personal viewpoint.

Words – and their family, ideas – aren’t just playthings for Twitter or Facebook, or to be screamed loudly on cable talkshows. They are – as we have seen in the past day or so at the Capitol – a matter of peace or anarchy, life or death.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.