clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The citizenship test taught me that words have power. The Capitol riot proved it

Supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.
Jose Luis Magana, Associated Press

“A word after a word after a word is power.” — Margaret Atwood

Ten years ago a recording of 128 questions about the history and governing of the United States of America played in our family living room for days on end as my parents prepared to take the naturalization interview and test.

While I already had experience with life in the States, those civics questions boiled down the events that led to the founding of the country. Repeatedly listening to history helped me understand what set America apart, and how its foundational principles continued to allow the country to run centuries later.

None of those questions discussed what the protocol was if the Capitol was mobbed following an election. They were actually quite the opposite, highlighting America’s pride at maintaining peaceful transitions of power.

In fact, nobody discussed a potential mob at all.

At least, not in groups or in ways that could be mobilized to cause such chaos and mayhem. Sure, there may have been the regular neighborhood extremist, but nobody took them seriously.

Online, “trolls” invaded comment sections and forums, but it was an unspoken truth that they couldn’t be taken seriously.

Wednesday’s incredulous mob storming the Capitol evinces this has changed. The crowd was predominantly organized through social media, encouraged by President Trump’s comments about a “stolen” election and refusal to concede.

The majority of the country, who did not have this sort of incendiary communication show up in their algorithms, watched in shock and horror as the country that has stood as a beacon of peaceful democracy for so long began to crack.

Free speech has been a foundational tenet of democracy and of this country. It drives important ideas forward and incites change. But we have become too comfortable using language that fan the flame of anger and insurrection. Our default language has mutated from one of decency and respect to extreme threats.

So outlandish are these comments, that the lines between wild conspiracy and truth have become almost tangibly blurred. Wednesday’s actions account for this, as the majority of us struggle to imagine another time when an online call to mob the Capitol would be taken seriously.

Watch your words, many of us are told as children. They become actions, which become habits, which become character, which becomes destiny.

If such extreme, tawdry language continues to be the norm, America’s destiny may take a regrettable turn.

Admittedly, this is an area I could improve on myself. It’s easier to “like” or click on pieces with captive or catchy language, which can result in solid pieces getting less attention just because they lack the polarizing language or attacks that are so prevalent.

Twitter and Facebook have disabled Trump’s accounts. This is a step greater than just adding fact check warnings.

“We did this because we believe that the public has a right to the broadest possible access to political speech, even controversial speech,” said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a post explaining the decision.

“But the current context is now fundamentally different, involving use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government.”

This is an acknowledgement on how dangerous language can be, and that these paragons of free speech inadvertently played a role in yesterday’s events. That there is a line on what is an acceptable form of expression.

That line must be redrawn. Wednesday’s actions may have caused America’s belief in the system to lose credibility on the world stage, but this step back can still lead to two steps forward. No longer can such crass language or be our standard.

The written word is where many ideas take hold, and one of the best ways to spread those ideas. From the Declaration of Independence to the Federalist Papers and the Constitution, our country’s foundation is in the written word. Language that is strong, precise and even unrelenting. But it is language that is decent and respectful.

What may have begun as trolling has led to terror. The line between acceptable and dangerous must not erode further. America must not become a mockery of democracy.

Wednesday’s events are not the first black mark on America’s bright history. What I learned a decade ago from those citizenship questions, though, is that the country is capable of facing the greatest challenge and finding ways to rise to the occasion. And become all the stronger for it.

Let’s hope those words prove true.