The incendiary power of shouted words

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me

By Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.

Natasha Josefowitz

LA JOLLA, California — When I was in college, Aimee Semple McPherson was at the height of her popularity. She was an evangelist at the Foursquare Church in Los Angeles and had thousands of followers. Three of us nice freshman girls decided to go hear and see this phenomenon, ready to suppress the inevitable giggles.

We sat way up in the balcony of the enormous church with loud music reverberating against the walls. After a while, a white-clad figure in flowing robes appeared and started to name in rapid succession what at the time was all forty-eight states. This seemed to please the congregation who applauded vigorously. We were not impressed. As the evangelist exhorted her flock to repent and as the music grew louder, people started to rise up from their chairs and shout. Sister Aimee was screaming that Jesus was coming and that people can receive him. The shouting increased with people waving their arms and Sister Aimee yelling, “He’s coming! He’s coming! He’s coming!”

I was in awe, not of the proceedings, but of my body’s involuntary reaction. The three of us were standing up, hearts pounding, sweating, electrified by the hysterical atmosphere. The coming of Jesus was not exactly a slogan that we could accept, but anything else remotely resembling a call to arms for some cause more or less noble would have had us shouting and waving right alongside the others.

This was a major lesson learned early in my adult life. As a child, I had heard Hitler and Mussolini screaming on the radio; it scared me. However, when DeGaulle shouted “Vive La France,” I was ready to go and fight for my then country even though I was only twelve. Since then, I have heard Perons and Stalins, Castros and Ayatollahs—all whipping up their followers with frenzied messages, not so much for some cause, but rather against specific peoples, be they blacks, whites, capitalists, immigrants, rulers, reformers, or peacekeepers.

It feels good to be standing in a crowd and have permission to let out the pent-up rages of our childhoods, the injustices of our work lives, the frustration of our family situations—to stand with others in mutual anger, shouting, and vowing to take action. There is a special feeling about being in a crowd yelling slogans and waving arms. One somehow feels larger than oneself, promoting a cause or fighting against it, or just being there enjoying the music at a concert; one begins to march to someone else’s drumbeat. As we know all too well, a crowd will engage in behaviors an individual would never do on his or her own. For most, it ends there, at the rally, at the meeting, but for some, spurred to action, they go on to kill.

I have felt anger at various newspaper stories of child abuse, unfair practices, and meaningless or destructive behaviors. However, between feeling the anger and acting upon it is an abyss I cannot cross. Not so for too many people with weak control, poor reality testing, fragile egos, and a disconnection in their brains between feelings and actions. They cannot feel shame, regret, or remorse for any action they have committed that has hurt or taken the life of another.

If rhetoric vindicates murder, we must stop the rhetoric. Those who shout messages of hate into microphones are indeed accessories to the crimes perpetuated by their listeners. People have hated Christians and thrown them to the lions, hated Jews, Romani, the Tutsis of Rwanda, and Bosnian Muslims and committed genocide against them, hated protestants or Catholics depending on which county in Ireland they lived and set off bombs in the streets, hated the Japanese and placed them in detention camps. Now ire is directed towards Muslims, illegal immigrants, transgender people, Democrats, or Republicans.

We are becoming more polarized as a nation as is the rest of the world as more extremist factions rise to power. We can be stirred by a speech, an ad, a movie, or a book. We are not educated about how our own primitive impulses can be influenced by a savvy media that knows how to motivate us to action, whether to buy a product or follow the dictates of a leader.

So I have become conscious of my own sometimes outsize reactions in a crowd at a football stadium, a revivalist church, a political rally, or even singing the national anthem in unison, especially in times of crisis. It is important that we become aware of our own runaway emotions at such times and exercise control as needed to not do anything we might regret later.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones” but words can be even more destructive.

© Natasha Josefowitz. This article appeared initially in the La Jolla Village News. You may comment to [email protected]

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