The power of words

By Penny Mulvey

Growing up, the old nursery rhyme, ‘sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt you’, was regularly repeated to me by my parents. This English language rhyme is credited to have been published in The Christian Recorder of March 1862, a publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The funny thing is broken bones heal, but people who have been bullied or emotionally abused may be damaged for life.

James’ letter in the New Testament reminds us of the power of words when he describes the tongue as ‘a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits’. The tongue cannot be tamed, the letter says, ‘a restless evil’, which can produce both ‘blessing and cursing’.

The nursery rhyme and letter of James were written well before Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web, shortly followed by social media in its various guises, including Jack Dorsey’s 140 character Twitter feeds. How do I know this? Google of course.
Therefore, ‘the great exploits’ of the tongue referred to by James are producing blessings and curses exponentially, as people ignore all common courtesy and respect in the often anonymous world of social media.

‘Sticks and stones…’ captures the schoolyard bully concept, but that schoolyard bully can now terrorise targets by posting falsehoods, incriminating photos, gossip and innuendo to 500+ friends in Facebook land.

These comments/photos can then be retweeted, posted, tagged to 500×500 and on it goes.

Social media is almost a modern day version of the wild west, lawless with ‘trolls’ (a person who deliberately posts inflammatory material on others’ blogs, websites, twitter feeds, etc), cyber bullies and other angry citizen journalists holding court. We need to be aware of our words. Any words you put in writing have the potential to end up online.

Do you consider what you publish? How might it read if it was published on the front page of The Australian newspaper?
One of our congregations recently experienced the perils of ‘new media’ first hand, when a submission to the local council objecting to the development of another faith’s worship centre was made public. Within a very short time, excerpts from this submission were reproduced on websites emanating from as far afield as Cairo, India and Iran.

It has been a salutary lesson, and one from which we might all learn. If you are writing a public document, ensure other objective individuals read it first.

If you are writing something using Church letterhead, there is a communications unit at the Synod who can offer advice and support.
And just because a journalist rings you up doesn’t mean you have to speak to them (and definitely not on the spot!).

We all need time to think to ensure considered responses. In this new era of a borderless society, your comments may reverberate in ways beyond your imagination.

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