The Inadequacy of Words

Words can be very powerful. They can inspire patriotism, foment revolution, result in acts of compassion or incite riots. Words can heal, scar, comfort and humiliate.

Yet there are times that mere words are inadequate. In the aftermath of the horror that was last week, thousands of words have poured forth urging unity, understanding, a rethinking of race relations in this country and asserting that we are better than our worst moments. Two common themes were shock at the events of last week and a hope that we as a society could begin addressing the causes of that spasm of violence. Although there were exceptions, the preponderance of what was written in response to the killing of five policemen in Dallas and two unarmed black men in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis spoke more to seeking solutions than to casting blame.

As someone who has spent much of my adult life engaged in using words to analyze, advocate and describe, I have a high regard for the importance of putting thoughts into words.  When I taught undergraduates who would tell me that they knew the answer but just couldn’t put it into words, my response invariably was that then they didn’t really know the answer.  Being able to articulate thoughts as words is one of the key ways in which we interact as human beings.

Still, I found the torrent of words from last week, many of them incredibly thoughtful, moving and sincere, to be a totally inadequate response to all those deaths.  Perhaps it’s partly because we’ve heard versions of those words so many times before in the aftermath of whatever was the most recent national tragedy.  We so often declare that “this” must never be allowed to happen again.  We talk about a particular event “changing everything.”  We even assert that there are lessons that have been learned from whatever the most recent horrible event was.

I think many people are a bit numb at this point.  The bad news keeps bombarding us with no time to absorb one tragedy before another comes hurtling at us.  How do you make sense of the senseless?  How do you comprehend what at some level can only be described as evil? How do you retain any confidence that what has happened so frequently won’t happen again soon?

The impulse to express feelings through the written word is a pretty basic one.  I have no quarrel with all those who shared their thoughts last week and in fact was moved by many of the words.  But, ultimately, I took no solace in them.

Last week’s murders are among the many symptoms of a society that shows lots of signs of unraveling.  The inability of Congress to deal with  the core issues facing the country without the discussion turning into partisan warfare is dismaying.  The mean-spirited and ugly tone of so much public discourse guarantees that nothing positive will result.  Public cynicism about our politics and a decreasing level of confidence in the major institutions of our society undercut our ability to find solutions to any of the big problems facing us.

I have written on many occasions about the need for “commonsense” regulations regarding guns, but my larger concern is that we are not even able to have a serious discussion about the topic.  I understand that some people have views on the topic that are different from mine.  What I don’t understand is why those who reject “gun control” are unwilling to offer any proposals on how to reduce–not eliminate–the level of violence that plagues the United States and that sets us apart from every other industrialized nation in the world.  The words we use become barriers rather than bridges to communicating.

The inability to have a discourse on guns is mirrored by similar impasses on many other issues.  We are stuck in stalemate and seemingly lack the will to move beyond it.

Worse yet, we are well into a presidential campaign that could result in an even more fractured country.  I find it totally incomprehensible that Donald Trump, the least qualified and in many respect least serious candidate I have ever observed in national politics, has a chance to be elected president.  I do understand that some in this country don’t trust or even dislike Hillary Clinton.  I also understand that people have legitimate reasons for being angry, frustrated and disillusioned.  What’s harder to understand is why, even with all those factors taken into account, so many citizens would consider turning this country over to an unstable, erratic and potentially dangerous individual who exhibits every sign of being both a narcissist and an autocrat.

At this point, I don’t take comfort in any words about either the presidential campaign or the state of the nation.  While there are many small steps that individuals can take to improve their immediate communities, I’m at a loss how we are going to regain the soul of our nation.  I don’t think we need to “make America great again;” I would settle for making it civil.