Home Opinion OPINION: Words matter. The emotions behind them matter even more

OPINION: Words matter. The emotions behind them matter even more

A good friend, knowing how much I enjoy words, recently sent me a copy of Dr. Frank Luntz’s classic book, “Words That Work.” The author has long been associated with consulting Republicans, crafting and institutionalizing terms in the vernacular like “The Contract for America,” the “death tax,” “opportunity scholarships,” “parental choice,” and “tax relief.” He helped craft words that manipulate how we react and feel about issues. You have no doubt heard them repeated in our state recently. But the principles aren’t effective for just one political party.

In this fascinating book Luntz states, “it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.”

That started me pondering what people had heard from recent happenings in North Carolina.

When our House of Representatives was debating the overturn of Governor Cooper’s veto on the twelve-week abortion ban, Rep. Diamond Staton-Williams spoke on the House floor that she had undergone an abortion and told of the support she had received from her church. Under his breath, but loud enough to be heard, Rep. Keith Kidwell, cynically speculated whether Williams was a member of the “church of Satan.”

What did people really hear from Kidwell’s remarks? Hateful, discriminatory, disrespectful, intolerant, insulting and racist remarks?

That same week Rep. Jeff McNeely made remarks to and about Rep. Abe Jones on the House chamber. McNeely, known for his outlandish clothing and off-putting comments, questioned whether Jones, a Harvard Law School graduate, would have been admitted into the Ivy League School had he not been Black.

What was really heard from those words? Prejudiced, jealous, resentful and small-minded speech from a man who still hates those not white or who have achieved more than he?

The two legislators were stripped of their chairmanships and meekly apologized, but that was the end of both episodes. We didn’t hear legislative leaders, or any other Republican members, condemn their comments as unacceptable, threaten to censure them or challenge them for not reflecting their own personal and party values. Nobody called for the two white lawmakers to resign for their racist attitudes toward Black members. Instead, crickets.

And just last week Bishop William Barber came to Durham with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in a three-stop “Rally to Raise the Minimum Wage.” The State Republican Party tweeted in response, “Socialist Bernie Sanders is teaming up with poverty pimp William Barber to hold a rally with NC Democrats in Durham today. While @NCDemParty embraces Sanders’ push to make us more like his beloved USSR, Republicans work to protect the good old timeless values of the USA.” This wasn’t just an impromptu loose-lipped, shoot from-the-hip comment. It was the official response from one of the major political parties in our state.

What are those timeless values we really heard from this tweet? Hate, racism, meanness, intolerance, unfairness, insults and a lack of compassion? House Minority Leader Robert Reives said this attack was even worse than the two previous legislative instances. Again, what we heard was mostly silence. No local, state or national Republican leader repudiated these outrageous comments. No calls were made that the leadership of the state GOP party resign.


This same GOP hosted its state convention featuring the former president and a cast of right-wing ideologues in Greensboro. We can only speculate what people heard from those rants.

Ultimately, the citizens of our state heard it is alright to hate, to be a racist, to demean, demonize and demoralize others who disagree with you.

When did we come to a point where people can say anything they want, to anyone they want, anytime they want, using any language they want without rebuke? It wasn’t too many years ago when unacceptable conduct was challenged, called out and offenders were shunned.

I think I know how we got to this place. In trying to be a more “open and inclusive” society we became more accepting of speech and conduct that didn’t conform to accepted values. We became reluctant to criticize others, justifying our silence by professing to be more tolerant. We just let it go. Our silence was interpreted as approval, both by the violator and, more importantly, by those around us. In our silence we became enablers of profanity, racism, violence and denigrating, disruptive and demeaning behaviors from many, who seem eager to destroy our trust in most every institution.

Our continued silence only encourages more outrageous behaviors. I refuse to believe most people accept or endorse bad behavior, but the only way to change this course, the only way to get back to more acceptable standards of speech and action is for each of us to mount opposition to it. Change will occur when the “silent majority” speaks out with enough numbers and force that offenders get the message.

And they will be the words and emotions that really matter.

Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina Broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. His weekly half-hour TV program, NC SPIN aired for 22 ½ years. Contact him at tomcamp@carolinabroadcasting.com.

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