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“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” in a response to a schoolyard taunt containing hurtful words many of us have probably used when verbally assaulted by the schoolyard bully. That reasoning is generally untrue as words do hurt and I am sure that you were hurt when the bully made fun of your race, clothing, religion or some other verbal and possibly physical assault against you.

In an era of social media, seemingly insensitive comments directed to nearly everyone in the workforce or on the streets focusing on those of a certain color, gender, religious beliefs, lifestyles, sexual orientation, LGBT and others have placed an increased focus on the words we use can be hurtful or helpful.

Our words can comfort and express that we understand or that we “see” the other person in front of us. And of course, our words can do the opposite: they can hurt, isolate and make someone feel insignificant. For better and for worse, our words signal our values and beliefs. In our provision of caregiving to members of our community, words can heal, comfort and elicit empathy towards a grieving parent, child or even firefighter.

However there are times we experience vitriol directed to those who are “deemed different” from those extoling a viewpoint that is harmful, hurtful and possibly illegal. Using certain words to describe American immigrants either Black, Irish, Polish, German or the ethnic immigrant groups that make up our great nation do a great disservice to those attacked and caused collateral damage to those witnessing or hearing those slurs and epithets.

Denigrating terms describing our enemies in times of war is an interesting psychological tactic that was commonly used and during my time in Vietnam as a Navy Corpsman serving with the Marines I heard many versions of disparaging terms describing the enemy. In all, if not most wars disparaging terms describing our enemies was designed to place those enemy combatants in a lesser place in the chain of human evolution and at times classified them as subhuman and making it easier to kill them. Are we at that position in our society today by denigrating those who do not look like us or hold our beliefs are subhuman and do not share a place at the table?(1)  We have seen a national leader and others liberally using their social media platforms to express frustration and ire directed at many individuals using name-calling in a derogatory manner that may be effective but certainly does not promote a national discourse.

Do we have a limited right to speech? Yes, there are limitations on the right to freedom of speech. It has never been held that the First Amendment protects all kinds of speech. Some examples of proper limitations are when speech creates a clear and present danger that it will create some evil which government has a right to prevent. The well-known examples here are shouting "Fire" in a crowded theater or when speech directly results in a breach of the peace such as inciting to riot or using "fighting words." Other examples includes speech constituting libel or slander or when speech constitutes obscenity, but within a very narrow definition of obscenity. The words and rhetoric we use define and shape the debates we engage in, and those very same debates in turn can dramatically affect the words or language we use.

As firefighters, we are leaders in our business and community, and as such we have an obligation to measure what we say. I agree that the need for political correctness has taken on a life of its own, being conscious of our words and how they affect others should matter. Firefighters, through their position in the community have an influence and power, so words, as well as actions go a very long way.

The question is, have we become so thin skinned that any words directed towards another can cause harm? I do not suggest that we restrict our speech, but be mindful on how we use our words. We live in an imperfect society and it is those imperfections that make us who we are remembering that we are required to remain civil and mindful of the power of our words. As firefighters, the community looks up to us and in turn we look up to each other and should be using our words to enact change and to raise the level of discourse to reflect a world we want. As firefighters we must understand this and lead ourselves and others through our words as much as our actions, and while we cannot be perfect, we can strive to be better than we were yesterday.

At what level is hate and hurtful speech protected? In a 2011 decision delivered by Chief Justice Roberts, the United States Supreme Court addressed the question whether the First Amendment shields church members from tort liability for their hateful speech. The followers of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas (Defendants), believe that God hates and punishes the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality, particularly in America’s military. Defendants picketed the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Snyder, who was killed in Iraq in the line of duty. Defendants picketed on public land displaying signs stating a number of things that were hateful and hurtful towards the Lance Corporal, the Catholic Church and America approximately 1,000 feet from the church where the funeral was held. The (Plaintiff), father of the deceased soldier, filed action under various tort theories.

Justice Roberts stated, “Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and-as it did here-inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course-to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.” (2)

The unkind things we communicate can destroy the best of relationships; even with the deepest of regrets…what lingers is a stain of hurt that may fade but will never truly go away. I will tell you that actions speak louder than words and I write this article to remind you that doesn’t mean words can’t and won’t also be hurtful and harmful. My plea to you, in this age of social media, insensitive individuals, instantaneous ideas and just plain BS, is to express yourself carefully, rationally, and most of all, thoughtfully. Choose your words wisely, considering how much they can matter, and teach others in your department do the same so the world we all live in can be a more mindful place.

My wise Irish mother once told me, “Think before you speak as words are like bullets – once released cannot be recalled and can do great harm.” Regret is a human characteristic and sometimes saying “I’m sorry” will not undue the harm caused by your words. 

1) “Less Than Human': Why we Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others by David Livingstone Smith
2) Snyder v. Phelps, 09-751, 2011 WL 709517 (U.S. Mar. 2, 2011).

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