This presupposes that words carry no meaning, provide no context, and have no value. It is a distortion of what would otherwise be a sensible assertion: “Actions speak louder than words.” Sure. But that, of course, depends upon a little thing called “context”.
You don’t believe me? Okay. Here: picture an action. For our sake, picture a kind and noble action. Let’s say you spot a starving person in the street and take them out to lunch. Let’s say you even hook them up with a job while at lunch. Unequivocally, you can point to that and say “See? I did something good. That’s a sign I’m a good person.” Normally, that would be true. It would be true except for one thing: let’s suppose, at the end of the lunch, right after you hooked this hungry person up with a job, you looked them dead in the eye and said: “Now that I’ve done this for you, I want you to admit to me that your spouse is a pig. Also, you’re going to have to get down on the ground and lick my boots. And if you don’t do that, maybe, just maybe, I’ll hire someone to kill your family.”
Changes it a bit, doesn’t it? Why? Because those words provided context. The implications of the action are no longer the same. That is true – especially true, in fact – when it comes to policy decisions made by the most powerful man in the world.
Words also have meaning. They carry implicit weight and consequences, and are, in the most literal sense, a spoken contract made between the person saying them and the person hearing them. They imply “You can trust that what I’m saying is true.” If that person threatens, demeans, contradicts themselves, or passes off their words as a joke, it not only changes the context of what they’ve done, but it also devalues the meaning of what they’ve just said.
The most classic example of “devaluing meaning” is the “Chicken Little” story. Every day he cries “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” then turns around and realizes he is wrong. He apologizes and is forced to admit “The sky is not falling.” One day, when a catastrophe actually strikes, and the sky does indeed “fall”, Chicken Little runs outside and cries “The sky is falling!” and no one reacts. As a result, everyone suffers the consequences. Even though Chicken Little was a “Good Person” whose “Actions speak louder than words” (he did, indeed, spring into action), his words undercut his efforts because their meaning was now worthless.
This is the Trump Administration in a nutshell. Did the Stock Market initially go up when he became President and declared himself “pro-business”? Yes. But, like a sail cut loose and flapping in the wind, it began to rise and fall on each threat, each misstatement, each joke. Then, even worse, after a while, the market stopped reacting to every word he said…because whatever he said could change at any moment and could mean almost anything. In short, his words no longer had value. This left our economy, our investments, our future, as robust as they may be, vulnerable to a host of unforeseen threats.
Like a pandemic. Or massive injustice and social unrest. Such events rely heavily upon effective communication as much as they rely upon action. Perhaps even more so.
So when Trump, like Chicken Little, gets on TV and alerts America of a terrible enemy – to say “The Sky is falling” – no one really reacts with shock or concern. In fact, even the most egregious threats are often treated as being something to ignore and dismiss. His words have no value, even if they do continue to have an unsettling, ominous context.
That context is: the danger of not knowing if this man is serious or not. To return to the original metaphor: if he buys someone lunch, gets them a job, and says to them “Tell me your spouse is a pig and lick my boots or I’ll kill your family.” well…not only is their lunch no longer an act of kindness (and is, instead, an action designed to demoralize and wield power over someone) but it is also a serious threat given the fact that this person has to take him seriously. They have no choice but to do so, even if this is the hundredth time he’s said this and lied, joked, or changed his mind about it. They have to take him seriously because, to them, the cost is simply too high. For him, it cost a few words and the price of lunch.
Whenever he contradicts himself – saying he’s done something to make our country safer, and then reverses course and says the exact opposite, you as a citizen, don’t know what is true. You don’t know if he’s made you safer or not. He treats these two contradictory statements, these “jokes” about things that impact your day-to-day life, as if they’re the same. That means our voting public gets up each day assuming that their government is doing what we pay them to do, to keep us safe, and uphold the law, but quite possibly…they just aren’t. And half of the voting public is okay with this one way or the other.
Under normal circumstances, any sane person would walk out the door and seek out another source to work with. But, in the case of an elected official, we are stuck with him. We elected him. We’re stuck with him for four years– watching our 401Ks go up and down depending upon whether we “lick his boots,” so to speak, or not. And if he does demand that we lick his boots, well, then that divides us neatly into two different groups: one which finds it tolerable, or even amusing, if they’re ordered to “lick his boots” because they are getting a lunch out of it, and one which refuses to be insulted and disrespected no matter now delicious the lunch is.
One group is willing to sacrifice its dignity and reputation to get a few extra bucks. The other preserves its dignity because things like “dignity, kindness, integrity, family, and loyalty” do not, and should not, have a condition placed upon them. They should not have a price tag attached.
Currently, sadly, right now in America, our values do have a price. Like a hired prostitute, our standard, as a country has become: I’ll tolerate this if it gets me more money – even if it makes my country less safe overall. That is the price of our dignity as well as our security.
Unless, of course, we put a stop to it. Unless you and I stand up and refuse to accept what he does, precisely because of what he says.
Unless we get out and vote.
And vote in the way we always should: as if things like “dignity” matter and as if our very lives depend upon it.