Words Are Powerful – As Are Bullets

Twelve were murdered at a small newspaper Charlie Hebdo, in France, for publishing cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The cartoonists who were killed on Wednesday — January 7, 2015 in Paris were, Philippe Honore, Bernard Verlhac, Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut. Along with them were an economist, editorialist’s, columnist, visitor, caretaker, and policemen.

The power of words & images

Western democracies take pride in our ability to express what we want, when & where we choose. We see this as almost a sacred ritual which defines or enshrines our democracies. None the less, we should recognize that nothing we say and do is done in a vacuum, most especially when conveyed through a distributed public media.

Here are a few of those realities.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, most of us self censor according to the community we live in or aspire to be a part of because humans are social and seek approval of someone or some group. This means, despite our intentions or independent thoughts, we still want to be part of a group. This leads me to the next observation:

People are basically tribal, in that they may find comfort in a specific group, but are often willing and able to see the difference between themselves and other groups. Their observations often lend themselves to what we sometimes call “critical thinking” or are part of “group think”. Either way the results of these differences manifest themselves in a variety of ways. Sometimes a group may shame an individual or another group. They may exchange words or in extremes cases, they use whatever laws they follow to control or harm the other party.

When a group is passionate about what they think to the point of exclusion of outside opinion or moderation of the group behavior, often times there are confrontational interaction, even violence or war.

Which leads me to my final point and perhaps the most relevant to this post.

We have to understand that what we say and do has consequences. What we display or express into a community will often draw attention in ways which may not be healthy to either party. When an individual or group is known to be sensitive to a barbed word, drawing or action, then placing something out there in a public way is bound to receive a reaction. A single negative word among a group of people can elicit an adverse reaction. Couples sometimes do this to each other and act surprised when the other one reacts in a harsh way. Political partisans do it to provoke, intimidate, and ridicule each other. Ethnic groups use it to demonize or criticize each other. The results of which are seldom positive.

It should be easy to see that criticism, no matter how much we value it, may rebound in a way that either surprises or harms us. Therefore this cartoon, and its reproduction on other media, merely continues to fan the flames. If we don’t want the reaction, is the idea expressed so important that we can accept the response? If you try to provoke a snake, do you not expect it to lash out?

No matter how much we think the reactions are wrong, we’re not likely to get a different response from groups that are inherently violent. Accept the premise that any inflammatory words, drawings, pictures or rhetoric are going to be met with hostility from that group. Decide in advance if the ideals expressed are so important, that an equally violent reprisal may be necessary to contain the type of response we have just witnessed in Paris.