Words are more powerful than we sometimes know

I don’t usually discuss politics, mostly because, as Bob Marley said, “Politics no interest me. Dem devil business.” But this isn’t about politics, per se, it’s about really thinking before you talk or act. I thought about this when I read a news story about a teacher in Alabama who recently used the example of assassinating our President in order to teach geometry angles to students.

The Secret Service investigated a teacher in Jefferson County, Alabama after “he picked the wrong example” and used a hypothetical assassination of President Obama to teach angles to his geometry students, the Birmingham News reports:

The teacher was apparently teaching his geometry students about parallel lines and angles, officials said. He used the example of where to stand and aim if shooting Obama.

“He was talking about angles and said, ‘If you’re in this building, you would need to take this angle to shoot the president,’ ” said Joseph Brown, a senior in the geometry class.

The Secret Service questioned the math teacher, but decided not to arrest him or charge him with a crime after they determined he was not “a credible threat,” an agency spokesperson said. Superintendent Phil Hammonds called the incident “extremely poor judgment” and “a poor choice of words,” but said he has no plans to fire the teacher. “We are going to have a long conversation with him about what’s appropriate,” Hammonds said. The Birmingham News was unable to reach the teacher for comment.

In the comments section of that web page, and on Facebook where it’s also posted, some folks are responding by saying that if it were Bush the teacher was metaphorically aiming at, the response would be different. I say, let’s forget WHO it’s about. The fact is, the teacher is teaching CHILDREN, using the example of how to shoot another human being. How is that even close to okay? (Whatever happened to using billiards as an example?)

During the election campaign, I remember watching a McCain rally wherein his rabid followers (this particular crowd was exactly that) were chanting about death to Obama. McCain interrupted them, clearly afraid of the mob’s violent turn, and told them to knock it off. One of the women in the crowd said that she’s afraid of Obama because he’s a Nazi.

McCain did what he could to defuse the situation, because he could see how dangerous this was getting, but he only managed to stop the chanting. He didn’t change their minds about him. These people still wanted Obama dead, for things he’s not guilty of … for words used by political enemies and media commentators. Problem is, they’re using the words metaphorically and the mob thinks they mean them literally.

Mob mentality is a scary thing. We’re not talking about rational, thinking people. This kind of name calling that is aimed at Obama … whether you support him or not … is dangerous and irresponsible.

I hope that they don’t have to learn the hard way, by having their words come back to haunt them after an assassination. Look at the Gulf oil spill and “Drill, Baby, Drill.” Yep, learning the hard way on that one, aren’t we?

I learned about mob mentality during my 20’s when I traveled to Washington DC to a protest march that brought 500,000 people to the Capitol. It was supposed to start at noon, but by 12:30 we still weren’t moving. We were getting antsy, impatient and pissed off, and had no idea what the holdup was. A rumor starting filtering through the front of the crowd, where I was, that some opposition protesters were blocking our path, and we had to wait for the police to clear them out.

Well, as a 25 year old, this was exciting and dramatic! My friends and I, and some of the others nearby, started spreading the word and the crowd members near us got whipped up into a frenzy. Finally, an older woman grabbed us and said, “What the hell are you doing? Do you have any idea how much harm half a million people can do if they start pushing? People in the front will get trampled and will be killed!” She then pushed her way through the crowd, calming those who we had stirred up.

Suddenly I realized the gravity and seriousness of mob mentality. Sure, drama might be fun and exciting when you’re in the middle of something monumental like that, but you gotta watch what you say when tempers are flaring. Just because you might be rational and feel like your words are poetic and allegorical, doesn’t mean that someone else isn’t taking you literally. I’m not saying I’m not guilty of this very thing, but I do at least try to be careful. I wish certain members of the media would do the same.


One response to “Words are more powerful than we sometimes know

  1. Lisa. Good thing to bring up. Mob mentality is way too easy to get started with rumor, as you found out long ago. It’s part of the potential tyranny of the majority that we have to watch out for in a democracy. Without the Bill of Rights to protect minority views, the majority can end up trampling on minority (and I’m talking much more generally than ethnic minority) rights, which actually threatens all our rights in a way. Our democracy was specifically created to allow for majority rule, but not majority tyranny. A fine line, of course. But mob rule is very dangerous, indeed.

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