Words are no more powerful than the stories they tell

While I believe Jared Loughner is mentally ill, I also think it is a good time to discuss the power of words. What (crazy) story prompted Jared Loughner to try to assassinate Congresswoman Giffords? Did he make his story up from scratch? Probably not. The metaphor of war is so deeply embedded in our American culture we should all take a look in the mirror.

While I believe Jared Loughner is mentally ill, I also think it is a good time to discuss the power of words.

What (crazy) story prompted Jared Loughner to try to assassinate Congresswoman Giffords? Did he make his story up from scratch? Probably not. The metaphor of war is so deeply embedded in our American culture we should all take a look in the mirror.

We wage war on fat. We tell war stories to the new interns. Budget meetings are battles. We wonder if proving a point is a “hill worth dying for.” We need firepower to gain market share. In 1984, I danced and pumped my fists in the air as Pat Benatar sang “Love is a Battlefield,” because I would rather see myself as a victim instead of a young woman dumped by some guy. War is a fabulous metaphor if you need to disassociate yourself from responsibility. How could I be a victim if I’m the one who chose the guy in the first place?

Not only do we avoid responsibility, the war metaphor gives us permission to change the rules of civility. It legitimizes tactics of war including disinformation, “gun and run,” distraction, and Sun Tzu’s favorite: deception.

These newly legitimized actions gain steam when a story moves from concept to reality. I teach people how to do this. I teach them how to use sensory words to create images, simulate sounds, smells, tastes and physiological feelings to create a virtual reality in a listener’s mind. Imagine your grandmother, surrounded by the smells and intrusive sounds of a hospital. Hold her warm hand in yours and look into her cloudy eyes filled with love, as you hear the doctor behind you say, “You will have to take her home, she is past eighty years old and we don’t keep people alive after eighty.” Or you could read the two thousand plus pages of the healthcare reform bill and figure out for yourself what it means for your grandmother.

Pictures, music, and words have the power to turn a metaphor into a story that feels literally true – a story you can touch and feel – particularly if you are in a group when you hear the story.  Martin Luther King, Jr. used the same strategy of sensory story/words to incite non-violent action almost fifty years ago when he stirred the imaginations of hundreds to see, hear, touch and feel:

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
“One day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

It is the words and images that make a story feel real, urgent, and demanding action – that have power.

I don’t know what happened with Jared. My heart breaks for everyone suffering from that tragic event. But it gives us an opportunity to reflect on the power of any story told well, to create change and inspire action in the direction you choose.  May we all choose well.

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