As every person knows, words have consequences. They can raise someone up or tear them down. Depending on how they are used, words can change the meaning and significance of events. They can also ruin someone’s career, and the past days and weeks have given us example after example of just that.
- Last week in a Congressional hearing, Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) apologized to BP executive Tony Hayward, only to apologize a few hours later for his earlier apology when his words ignited a bipartisan firestorm of controversy.
- Amidst the tidal wash of oil that has ruined marshes and ways of life along the Gulf Coast, BP CEO Tony Hayward emoted in an interview how he’d “like to have his life back.”
- Only complicating the on-going BP public relations nightmare, the Chairman of the company’s Board, Carl-Henric Svanberg used the term “small people” to describe the oil-spill affected residents of the Gulf Coast.
- Now we have Gen. Stanley McChrystal and members of his immediate staff offering some more than candid assessments of the Obama Administration’s leadership.
In each of these instances, prominent people have essentially opened their respective mouths and inserted their feet with such speed that everyone around them is in a collective gasp of shock, saying, “What did you say?”
Important points can be instantly invalidated when the wrong words are used at the wrong moment, regardless of what the speaker intended with their comment. Each of the above mentioned cases proves that without a doubt, but it’s not just prominent people who say the wrong thing at the wrong time. For all the countless (and recent) examples of famous people saying something improper in front of live microphone (e.g., Vice President Biden’s F-bomb); a television camera (e.g., CA GOP candidate Carly Fiona opining on Sen. Boxer’s haircut) or some other public venue (e.g., NV GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle), everyone one of us has some episode in our lives that we would love to take back, when we opened our own mouths and promptly inserted both feet.
All of those examples and events certainly provide moments of public (or private) laughter and fodder for late-night comedians, but when the wrong words are used in moments of stress and crisis (e.g., Gulf oil spill, Afghanistan conflict), their consequences are graver.
Accomplished careers can be vaporized in an instant. With a perpetual 24-7 news cycle and social media replaying the gaffe forever more, the wrong words become in effect an epitaph that will forever haunt an individual (e.g. “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job,” “As of now, I am in control here in the White House,” and “Let them eat cake“).
None of this is fair but neither is life. It is a fact of life that in times of crisis, words can cause more harm to a situation than the event that originated the crisis. Making it worse is almost never the intent of the person who opens their mouth, but when operating in any highly toxic environment where crisis and stress are the unfortunate operative norm, what you say does matter in ways like never before.
That’s a fact that no one can be or should be cavalier about either. Everyone can fall victim to this situation, but words have consequences. They always have, and that’s why they can be the ultimate weapons of mass (and self) destruction.