Actions speak louder than words. But words spouted through literal and figurative megaphones can still be heard for miles – especially in a polarized political climate.
Take GOP Sen. John Kennedy’s comments about Mexico at a recent hearing.
“Without the people of America, Mexico, figuratively speaking, would be eating cat food out of a can and living in a tent behind an Outback,” the Louisiana lawmaker said. He was questioning Drug Enforcement Administration Administrator Anne Milgram and inquired about fentanyl moving from Mexico to the U.S. while also comparing the countries’ economies.
The Mexican ambassador to the U.S., Esteban Moctezuma, called Kennedy’s words “vulgar and racist.”
Experts say these comments are a reflection of our current political era – but people need to remember that words have consequences. A small ripple could soar into a tidal wave, especially if speakers have a high-wattage platform.
“Words always matter,” says T.M. Robinson-Mosley, counseling psychologist. “And they matter even more when they are people who are in positions of power in our political ecosystem.”
‘Harmful and insidious effects’
It starts with a cruel thought in someone’s head, voiced aloud. Then other people join the ferocious fray and the comments grow nastier. It spirals from there.
“I get really uncomfortable and very concerned when I see these types of insults, especially when they get normalized by people in power, our political leaders, people of influence.”
Dehumanization always begins with language, according to Mosley. This has repeated itself throughout history.
“This can lead to people believing that those in different groups don’t deserve the same treatment as them or even don’t even deserve the respect,” Mosley adds. “This is where often the justification for treating someone differently, or in some cases, treating an entire group differently, or poorly, gets justified.”
The mental and political consequences
Harmful words lead to all kinds of complications.
“Racist language from political leaders can deeply affect members of marginalized communities,” says Brad Fulton, associate professor of management and social policy at the Indiana University – Bloomington. “It can reinforce a sense of exclusion and alienation and have detrimental effects on their mental health and well-being.”
It also has political consequences. “When lawmakers couch their policy positions in racist terms, it can result in biased and discriminatory policies that perpetuate inequality and disadvantage certain racial or ethnic groups,” Fulton adds.
Research shows these messages, on the extreme end, are used in war and genocide.
When a senator like Kennedy speaks, people listen. Look no further than former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and how it spawned lasting divisions among communities, family and friends in the U.S. and across the world.
Psychologist Reneé Carr adds, “When the general public hears these words, if they already have the same suppressed thoughts or more blatant racism, it will encourage and empower them to also become more vocal and unrestrained in making racist statements, as well as engaging in racist behaviors.”
Where do we go from here?
While we can certainly apologize, we can’t take back our words.
“The other person, or the group of persons affected by those words, will always remember that you spoken callously and with a lack of a consideration,” Carr says. “They will believe that this is who you truly are, and what you truly believe, and it will be very difficult to make the injured persons believe that it was a ‘mistake,’ a ‘misinterpretation,’ or that you really did not mean what you said.”
And as long as our political climate remains divided, expect these words to proliferate. And they’re often said not because a politician believes them, but because they want attention.
“By making attention-grabbing statements, politicians can increase their visibility, shape the narrative surrounding an issue, appeal to their base of supporters, or even provoke a reaction from opponents,” Fulton says. “The subsequent attention can serve as a platform to convey their political agenda, rally support and advance their policy goals.”
And Carr adds: “When you combine this groupthink with underlying racist tendencies, we will not only continue to hear such statements being made, but we will see them become even more vulgar.”
More on watching what we say
Good question:Is it time to stop saying ‘aloha’ and other culturally sensitive words out of context?
Interesting:Much of our slang comes from the Black community. Not acknowledging that perpetuates racism.
Something to think about:Should we forgive past problematic views?
Hmm:Is this the way to sidestep ‘cancel culture’ and be friends with everyone? Maybe.