Words Matter

What you see depends on where you stand
What you see depends on where you stand

Europe has what we do not have yet, a sense of the mysterious and inexorable limits of life, a sense, in a word, of tragedy. And we have what they sorely need—a sense of life’s possibilities. ~ James Arthur Baldwin

Americans were mystified yesterday by the news that Barack Obama had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  Europe, looking at the United States through its longer lens, sees the U.S. president differently than we do close up.

The Nobel committee praised Obama “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” Americans asked, what extraordinary efforts? Maybe he’s given some nice speeches, but what has he done?

The Nobel committee chair offered some clues in Friday’s announcement. “Those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population. For 108 years, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has sought to stimulate precisely the international policy and those attitudes for which Obama is now the world’s leading spokesman.”

The committee chose Obama because he uses his position to champion the values they affirm. But can spokesmanship change the world? Do words matter?

The United States is a nation born of ideas. We strive toward the vision that Thomas Jefferson put forth in the Declaration of Independence. Yet Jefferson himself was a slave owner who recognized how short his behavior fell from the ideals he espoused.

Our society reviles the n-word as the ultimate harbinger of hate. Many defend its use in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by arguing that the novel merely reflects the language used at the time. But I believe that Mark Twain intended to offend. He knew that if you called a man by a racial epithet instead of calling him a man, you could perform the mental acrobatics needed to permit slavery in a nation founded on the principle of liberty. Huck Finn was first published twenty years after the Civil War; it is not about the evils of slavery. It’s about the evils of the mindset that allowed slavery to exist in the first place. And that mindset was perpetuated by language.

Americans know that language can promote race-based stereotypes. Comedian Paul Rodriguez put it best: “What’s the difference between a Hispanic and a Latino? A Latino has a job, man.” The words we choose can belittle or empower; they can divide or unite.  Obama has chosen unity.

The Nobel committee has embraced the language of Barack Obama and its stark departure from the language of his predecessor. Obama’s words have increased the regard in which the United States is held internationally. Only time will tell whether his actions speak as loudly.

What do you think? Was the Nobel committee premature in awarding Obama this prize only ten months into his presidency? Leave a comment!

One thought on “Words Matter

  1. In my opinion, I think that the Noble Peace Prize should be awarded for actual accomplishment and not for good intentions. It’s one thing to have a vision and use inspiring words but, it’s another thing to create sustainable change.

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