The U.S. has had a new president for just over 100 days.
We have heard the new priorities and have grown accustomed to the new rhythms and cycles of news.
Instinctively, we remember the events of the past four years, and even the terms before that, and do the work of comparison.
We know that this president’s legacy will be judged against his predecessors and his successors, as it should.
In these calculations, there is a troubling trend.
On Facebook, Twitter and in personal conversations, I have heard the comparisons and contrasts between Joseph Biden and Donald Trump. People are working to justify their vote or to persuade others that they made a mistake.
In these calculations, a negative for Trump is often noted as “mean Tweets” or “big mouth” or “brash language.”
Yet, these tendencies of our former president are named as a small hurdle to overcome in order to benefit from his true policies.
They may be mentioned as an aside before listing policies or priorities. Or they are brushed aside as minimal critiques lodged against the man.
Too often, the language used by Trump is divorced from – and not considered as a realistic aspect of – his presidency.
It is set forth by his supporters as a sideshow – one that can be honestly criticized and deducted while still maintaining a positive score for his overall work.
But an assessment of Trump’s tweets and problematic rhetoric as distinct and separate from his policies, impact and legacy is illegitimate.
We must know that words grow and bear fruit.
Words that demean, dehumanize, label and insult do not end with the sentence. They lead to further classification and separation of “them” from the whole.
Insults and stereotypes that call upon a history of discrimination in order to blame or score a cheap laugh do not come without a price. They perpetuate the violence that accompanies the othering of a group of people.
When a word brings with it a legacy of violence, that pain is set down in front of the descendants of the abuser and the abused. It is not merely a word but a reminder of the power and pain that has long existed.
That history is not allowed to heal but, instead, is leveraged again to bring about similar ends to the original abuse and offense.
Language also does great harm when it denies the personhood of a group or individual. This includes words and phrases that remove a person or group from the discourse and substitute in its place words like “thug” and “scum.”
These methods continue along a path that creates violence and vitriol.
Rather than considering the motivations, concerns, successes and failures of people, dehumanizing language transforms them into pawns and villains.
They are no longer assumed to have agency and are not deemed worthy of respect. Dehumanizing language, at its core, makes an object of a person.
Words matter. They draw upon a shared past and push forward to a future that we help determine.
As Christians, we have bountiful sources for this knowledge.
James’ epistle tells us of the power of the tongue. The author knows that a simple word can set fire to a forest and turn the trajectory of a harrowing ship.
We can see the accounts of our own time and society.
The year 2020 brought a rise in anti-Asian violence that has accompanied a resurgence of associating Asian people with disease, fueled by Donald Trump making such claims.
We can read of the high rates of depression and suicide among LGBTQ+ youth who are told they are unloved or not welcome in their faith. The words spoken by a family member or loved one has a direct and significant impact on the perception of self-worth.
We must properly weigh the effect of words. When judging the efficacy of a leader or the morality of an individual, we cannot set aside their language as a separate matter from their other actions and beliefs.
We have had ample opportunity to learn this lesson.
Time and time again, language grows and perpetuates. Words are not the inferior weapon to sticks and stones; they provide the thrust that gives flight to such weapons.
As engaged citizens, we should continue our calculus of comparison when deciding our votes. We should look at not only their policies and party affiliation, but also their language.
When assessing the value of leaders, their words are not a mere inconvenience to be endured on the road we believe will lead to our prosperity. When we sow hateful rhetoric and dehumanizing language, we can be sure of what we will reap.
Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series focused on engaging the emerging generations of faith leaders. If you know anyone who might be interested, encourage him or her to submit his or her article for consideration to email@example.com.