Arizona's Sheriff Dupnik and the 'vitriol' debate: Do words matter that much?
Yes, they do. Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik is being criticized for his comments linking Saturday's shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others to antigovernment vitriol. But he's right: The words we use carry great power to shape how we respond to others.
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik was eloquent in linking Saturday’s devastating shooting to “the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government.” Some will applaud his articulating an obvious pathology of our times. Others will attribute the shooting to an individual’s unbalanced mind, and dismiss the notion that language – “just words” – could motivate such action. Years ago I experienced directly the power of talk to shape how people respond to others – with animosity and belligerence, or with compassion and a sense of connection.Skip to next paragraph
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In 1990, I wrote “You Just Don’t Understand” hoping to dissipate mutual frustration by offering women and men insight into the logic of gender-related ways of speaking. Of the many talk shows I appeared on when the book came out, two stand out for the stark contrast in how they affected people in the studio audiences.
While waiting to appear on a San Francisco television show called “People are Talking” I encountered a man wearing a shirt and tie – and a floor length skirt; his straight red hair reached his waist. He courteously introduced himself and told me that he’d read and liked my book. Then he added, “When I get out there, I’m going to attack you. Don’t take it personally. That’s why they invite me on, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
Sure enough, when the show began and I spoke a few words, this man lept forward in his chair, threw his arms out in gestures of anger, and began vituperating – first attacking me, but soon moving on to rail against women in general. The strangest thing about his verbal attack was the effect it had on the studio audience. They, too, became vicious, lashing out not at me (I never got a chance to say very much) and not at him (Who wants to tangle with someone who will yell at you?) but the innocent and helpless guests: unsuspecting women who had agreed to come on the show to talk about their own problems communicating with their spouses.
Promoting connections, not verbal attacks
Many other shows I appeared on also had studio audiences but with very different results. The most striking contrast was The Oprah Winfrey Show. Oprah, too, invited ordinary people to talk about their problems communicating. But rather than inciting the audience to turn on them, everything Oprah said inspired a sense of connection – among audience members, viewers, the show’s guests, and herself.