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Arizona's Sheriff Dupnik and the 'vitriol' debate: Do words matter that much?

Yes, they do. Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik is being criticized for his comments linking Saturday's shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others to antigovernment vitriol. But he's right: The words we use carry great power to shape how we respond to others.

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Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik was eloquent in linking Saturday’s devastating shooting to “the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government.” Some will applaud his articulating an obvious pathology of our times. Others will attribute the shooting to an individual’s unbalanced mind, and dismiss the notion that language – “just words” – could motivate such action. Years ago I experienced directly the power of talk to shape how people respond to others – with animosity and belligerence, or with compassion and a sense of connection.

In 1990, I wrote “You Just Don’t Understand” hoping to dissipate mutual frustration by offering women and men insight into the logic of gender-related ways of speaking. Of the many talk shows I appeared on when the book came out, two stand out for the stark contrast in how they affected people in the studio audiences.

While waiting to appear on a San Francisco television show called “People are Talking” I encountered a man wearing a shirt and tie – and a floor length skirt; his straight red hair reached his waist. He courteously introduced himself and told me that he’d read and liked my book. Then he added, “When I get out there, I’m going to attack you. Don’t take it personally. That’s why they invite me on, so that’s what I’m going to do.”

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