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.

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.

When she introduced me, Oprah said that she had read my book and “saw myself over and over” in it. She retold one of my examples, adding, “I’ve done that a thousand times” – and illustrated by recounting a conversation between herself and Stedman, referring to her “steady beau” by first name. She also got the studio audience to interact with the couples on stage, but audience members followed her lead by offering their own experiences to match or contrast with those of the guests.

Provoking animosity created drama on the San Francisco talk show. But so did Oprah’s inspiring connection.

Connection and opposition are both fundamental to human relationships. We approach others and define ourselves by asking, consciously or instinctively, “Is she like me? Am I like him?” Those whose words are broadcast across the public sphere – and the Internet makes it easier for words to spread widely and quickly – can take advantage of either impulse: awaken compassion by helping us see others as fundamentally like us, or instigate hostility and aggression by reminding us that we’re different. In the extreme, they can lead us to forget or deny others’ humanity entirely.

The “People are Talking” segment was turned into a fight in hopes of its raising ratings. The show’s producer said as much: Before leaving the set I told her that the show was irresponsibly squandering the power to inform. She replied that the ratings would prove whether it had been a success.

Corroding the human spirit

Politicians, like TV and radio producers and hosts, are no doubt focused on the outcomes they seek: to increase their followers and win elections. The San Francisco producer didn’t care how she raised her ratings – much as those who use inflammatory rhetoric seem not to know or care that, as Sheriff Dupnik put it, their words have consequences. We will probably never know all the factors that contributed to Saturday’s tragedy, but we do know that stoking anger, fear, and aggression is corrosive to the human spirit, making everyone feel more vulnerable and isolated.

The television show that turned audience members vicious went off the air shortly after that segment aired. Oprah’s was one of the most successful shows in broadcast history. If a sense of responsibility for the way public discourse shapes human relationships is not enough to motivate those who have access to public airwaves, we might remind them that creating connections among people is also a kind of power – and, judging by Oprah’s unparalleled success, a greater one.

Deborah Tannen is professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of “The Argument Culture” and, most recently, “You Were Always Mom’s Favorite!”

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