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Because words matter

Written by Peter Smith on .

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In the days before an anti-Catholic riot killed 22 people in August 1855 in Kentucky, editorials in the Louisville Daily Journal railed against the "most pestilent influence of the foreign swarms" loyal to "an inflated Italian despot who keeps people kissing his toes all day."

The paper's editor exhorted readers "to crush a faction of foreigners, political Papists and Anti-American native demagogues. ...Rally to preserve the homogeneous character of American institutions from the corrupting influences of a mixed foreign rabble."

When riots followed, Catholic and Protestant clergy magnanimously called for peace, and the violence was contained within 24 hours or so. 

But sometimes, the violence unleashed by words has no such restraint. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 did not emerge out of nowhere. Years of media incitement, of calling Tutsis "cockroaches," preceded the killing. Similar incitement, similar dehumanizing of Jews, preceded the Holocaust.

Words matter.

To be clear, nobody was calling for violence in the recent White House meeting on immigration.

But that's a pretty low bar to cross. 

It's been asked, "so what?" if the president did speak of "all these people from shithole countries." After all, people swear a lot these days.

But this is not a debate over whether the president of the United States used a potty word.

This is an expression of dehumanizing contempt -- lumping entire populations into one category, dehumanizing them because of where they come from, stigmatizing them because of the squalid conditions that some of them may live in, contrasting the homelands of dark-skinned people with Norway, whose citizens are white-skinned.

And by the way, what was the reason most Norwegians came here in the first place? "The main reasons for the Norwegian Immigration to America in the mid 1800's were disasters such as crop failures, blights and poor harvests leading to poverty." So at the time you could have used choice words to describe Norway, too, and by extension Norwegians. Nowadays, Norway isn't such a bad place, which is why Norway is a net destination for immigrants. 

One of the most cliched descriptions of Americana today is to say something is "right out of a Frank Capra movie."  Yet it was within living memory that Frank Capra's ancestral homeland of Italy was equally despised. In his classic, "It's a Wonderful Life," the villain despises the unsung hero of the movie for "playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic-eaters" by helping Italians find their share of the American dream.

No swear words there. But would we say, "So what?"

In the firehose torrent of news that we now live in, we may forget that we don't have to debate what the president said behind closed doors. At a rally in Harrisburg last year, when talking about immigration, he pulled out song lyrics that tell of a "tender-hearted woman" who embraced a "vicious snake," which ended up biting her. 

"Pestilent." "Cockroaches." "Snake." "Shithole." Words matter.

We can debate immigration policy without using words of dehumanizing contempt.

For more than a century and a half, the shame of Louisville editor George Prentice's words has haunted the legacy of the newspaper that evolved from his -- The Courier-Journal, even though it became one of the most racially and socially progressive major newspapers in the South in the 20th century.

I know this because, when I was its religion writer, people would allude to George Prentice when we covered the scandal of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. They didn't mention it very much, because the facts of the scandal were overwhelming, but it didn't help for our institution to have even a distant shameful history.

Prentice had a long and storied career, and such were his talents that many forgave, or overlooked, his outbursts in 1855. They installed a statue of him outside the local public library in tribute to the "stylistic contributions" he made to the craft of journalism. Yet a later placard in front of the statue also speaks of his "tarnished legacy." And in the current re-evaluation of other monuments seeming to enshrine a legacy of bigotry -- such as Confederate-honoring statues and the Stephen Foster memorial -- the Prentice statue's days may also be numbered.

His poisonous words at a decisive moment of history corroded an entire journalistic legacy.



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