Words are Deeds

The power of speech

Words are deeds, my father used to say. As someone whose livelihood depended on words, the quote from the philosopher Wittgenstein had special meaning for him. Words were the deeds of the writers whose books he acquired and edited. Words were my father's stock in trade, and words provided our daily bread.

My mother, a former newspaper reporter, shared a similar reverence for language. Growing up in this household, I learned early the power of words to define, persuade, and sometimes to destroy. The notion that words, unlike sticks and stones, lacked points and sharp edges always seemed naïve to me. During childhood dinners, I sometimes felt like ducking to avoid the verbal barrages that flew between the two varsity-level debaters at either end of the table. It wasn't always amicable—they disagreed loudly and often, about everything from foreign affairs to Elvis and the Beatles—but it was generally civil and unfailingly grammatical.

Clear, intelligent expression was the basic discipline of an educated person, my parents insisted. You identify yourself the minute you speak, so choose your words carefully. Edit. Refine. Reflect. And lose the um, like, and y'know.

I have been thinking about the power of words this week as the Henry Gates saga has unfolded. Words became deeds on a front porch in Cambridge, Mass., and later at a presidential press conference. By the time this column is in print, another exchange of words may have launched a new set of deeds at a White House gathering of the parties involved.

In a strange conflation of events, the Gates affair coincided with the anniversary of the Unitarian church shootings here in Knoxville. Two seemingly unrelated episodes belie the adage that talk is cheap. Talk, it seems, got Gates arrested. Hate-filled rhetoric, some speculate, fired the murderous deeds of the church shooter. And it was the words posted on a banner out front the day after the violence—Love is the Spirit of This Church—that strengthened a shocked community and underlined the myriad deeds of healing.

Revisiting the church shooting, media pundits renew the debate about the influence of hate speech. Listening to their split-screen rantings on cable TV, I think that they exemplify the problem rather than posing any solution. It's the decline of civil discourse writ large: loud, shrill, and in your face. What deeds do these furious words suggest?

Studies of human behavior tell us that we become what we think about most. Sometimes I wonder if our thoughts, and then our actions, are rooted in the words we say to ourselves each day. I think back to the dinner-table lessons of my childhood. You identify yourself the minute you speak, so choose your words carefully. Edit. Refine. Reflect.

I think about the words whose deeds I would like to see reflected in my own life and the lives of those around me. Words like peace, respect, dignity. Their meaning has been clouded by casual use, but when they are repeated slowly, taken within and examined, they seem to shine with a new, transformative brilliance.

This is not the adrenaline pop-speak that bombards us 24/7 and goads us to get, spend, and win. It's a quieter vernacular, one that could be shouted down by any cable commentator or talk radio host in a single blast. But perversely, and against the tide, I am drawn to this language of the spirit, this vocabulary of possibility. If you bless your life, it will bless you, someone wise once told me. So I say the words. Peace be with you.

Let the deeds begin.