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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss


In the event you are unfamiliar with Internet shorthand, IMO is the polite preface to a statement that indicates one is offering a personal opinion rather than stating a fact. It has all but disappeared from common usage and arguably the reason is that the boundaries between fact, supposition, manipulation, and outright lie have also vanished. More to the point, qualifying a statement as opinion exists largely as a journalistic device to protect a publication or website from legal repercussions, a get out of jail card against increasingly incendiary statements the sole purpose of which is to drive likes, comments, and controversy.

A recent article in a respected sociology journal reviewed a survey of 3000 individuals who had posted highly provocative messages online and found that the most violent rhetoric was employed by those unaffiliated with known racist or supremacist organizations, while those who declared themselves members tended to mute their online screeds. While this may seem counter intuitive, the authors offered a theory that, if true, is shocking in its implications. They suggest that those who refrain from the threat of violence in their messages have covert kinship as members of organizations pledged to what we would label anti-social causes, while those whose messages are strikingly sociopathic use the medium to declare their bona fides as fellow travelers. Invoking freedom of speech as a defense against criticism, memes, tweets, and posts employed by wannabe rabble rousers are a badge of honor offering protected status. They are a sly wink and nod, that permits anyone who harbors ill thoughts to give voice safely, as if words indeed do no harm.

But despite the childhood saying differentiating between sticks and stones and offensive language, we all understand that words can and do instigate real harm. To give voice to threats, to use language that demeans or demonizes others is not a passive declaration of political or social difference, it is a call to action. That it has become commonplace to deploy language as a weapon, to consciously label one’s opponents is a tactic openly employed today in politics, sports, and sadly in some pulpits. Those who suggest otherwise contradict themselves when they assail the availability of a book they find offensive in a school or public library, when they invoke laws to prevent the teaching of any idea which challenges the orthodoxy of selected views. Words are what is feared and words are the clubs to bludgeon those who hold views contrary to our own.

In the 1960’s Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner did a series of comedy sketches entitled the 2000 Year Old Man, in which Brooks played a caveman commenting on modern views of the world. In one sketch Reiner asked about the first national anthem which Brooks deadpanned as “Hurrah for cave 93, and to hell with everyone else.” Funny, and pretty tame by today’s standards, but the underlying theme is only a kinder, gentler poke at the adversarial nature of human competition. It is not enough to feel superior, to look down on those who do not belong to our race or religion, those who do not root for our team, or share our views—it is in our nature to diminish them, to reduce their legitimacy. When it is given license by national leaders, legislators, commentators and ministers why should we be surprised to hear it from our children and our neighbors.

Words are the most potent and insidious of weapons. Religious texts and philosophic works recognize this fact with injunctions against deception, gossip, curses and abominations which they equate with physical harm. It would be dishonest of us to suggest that it is only those in leadership roles who should be held accountable for offensive or dehumanizing rhetoric, but their explicit use of such language is more than pandering to a congregation or like-minded electorate.

At the heart of the January 6 insurrection, a lie covered by an emotionally charged call to act, cost lives, ruined others, and shocked us by revealing the fragility of our democratic foundation. In its wake, attempts to relabel and diminish a bald-faced appeal to overthrow a legitimate transfer of government only substantiate the degree to which reality has become a fictive narration. When we shake our heads and ask how it was possible in the past for masses of people to deny the truth of what was evident for all to see, we can only observe that then and now we are complicit if we remain silent and permit the revision of truth with deceit, or regard words as blunt instruments. But, of course, that is just my opinion.

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