On the power and responsibility of words

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the powerful and hateful language that has become a staple of our nation’s political discourse over the past two years. In America, we guarantee citizens the right to freedom of speech. And that freedom means we often have to hear things we don’t like or agree with. That’s OK. In fact, it’s good. It comes with the territory. We allow others to have differing opinions in America. We allow people to challenge widely-held ideas and belief systems. 

But somewhere along the line many of us seem to have lost a fundamental understanding of what freedom of speech is. It is not a freedom to harass (in some cases, lately, physically attack) anyone who holds a different set of beliefs. It doesn’t mean we get to say dangerous and evil things and face no consequences. Freedom of speech is not absolute. It is an immense power that comes with immense responsibility. The fact is, certain things should never be tolerated or accepted in our country and are not and should not be protected under the First Amendment. There is a point where ideas and words become so inherently dangerous that there have to be consequences. 

I learned that firsthand on Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008.

On that day I wrote something, that while innocent in its intentions (I was a dumb kid making a dumb joke), was dangerous in its implementation. It was, simply, hate speech. I felt the consequences of writing those words. Consequences that thankfully did not come down in their full force. And while I often joke about this experience (and many who know me have heard some version of this story), the fact is the lesson behind what happened that day is something I take seriously. It fundamentally changed how I think about words, specifically, my choice of words.

It was roughly 9:30 on a chilly fall morning eight years ago when my phone started buzzing. I didn’t think much of the “unknown” caller showing on my screen when I answered.

A woman was on the other end, and eight years later her question is as clear to me as ever.

“Why are you telling people to kill Sarah Palin?,” she demanded.

That question came at the conclusion of a tense, divided and angry election, not so different from the one that just happened. And the events that followed that phone call offered a valuable lesson for me about the limits of free speech and the responsibility we, as Americans, bear for what we say and write.

I was 17. A punk. A very angry, lonely teenager with far too much time on my hands. I was desperate for attention and I found it, briefly, through a series of crude jokes I would send out to people at my school every day via a massive group text message (and on Twitter, the home of crude, offensive language).

That attention-seeking habit is what got me into serious trouble on Nov. 5, 2008. That morning, I made a crude, poorly phrased joke about a candidate that just lost a national election. I don’t fully remember the exact language—I long ago worked to block it from my memory—but I do know that the phrasing was easily misinterpreted as an outright threat on the life of a candidate for a national political office. (I want to be very clear here, it was honestly nothing more than a very, very bad joke. And I’ve come to understand why nothing about it was funny.)

My joke that morning was a stupid, ill-informed take on political satire. I thought nothing of it as I unleashed it into the world. I hung up on the woman after briefly arguing with her that she needed to learn to take a joke. I thought nothing of her threats to call the police.

Later that day, as I was hanging out in my parents’ basement, those threats became reality.

The stranger on the other end didn’t just call the cops, she informed the federal government. I distinctly remember the knock on our front door and the chorus of our dogs barking from out back.

I swear it is the only time my mother has used my full name—Bryan M.(not tell you that easily) Vance—in reference to me.

At this point in that day I had dismissed the anonymous call completely. I thought maybe my interim report card had arrived and was the source of my mother’s anger. But the call, the dumb joke and a fear I can only describe as primal, all burst into the forefront of my mind as the front door came into view. Standing in my parents’ doorway was the single scariest thing I have ever personally seen.

Two men wearing black suits, sunglasses and spiral earpieces were there, waiting just inside the front door. They were Secret Service agents. And they had come for me.

I don’t remember much about the conversation that followed. The agents sat next to me on the living room couch, going over information about what I said and who I said it to. Most of it is a wash. A result of the state of shock I was in and my conscious effort to block most of it from my memory.

But one detail I will never be able to delete is the immense feeling of shame that washed over me as I stared at my feet, fully aware of my mother and sister sitting quietly in the room. Listening. Watching. 

By the end of it—it felt like it went on for hours, but in reality it actually probably lasted less than one—it became clear I wasn’t going to get in any serious trouble. Their visit was merely a scare tactic, aimed at shocking a teenager into behaving better.

I cried a lot that night. My retelling here can’t begin to do justice to the feelings of fear and shame that filled me that day and the days that followed. To this day, even as I laugh retelling it to friends and coworkers, I feel a pang of shame wash over me. It may have been a joke, but the words I typed that day were inexcusable. And I’m grateful for the two agents showing up at my door and scaring that valuable lesson into me.

A message that honestly didn’t sink in right away. It didn’t even sink in a year later. But four years later as I enrolled in journalism school, the importance of language and the responsibility that comes with the First Amendment was fully ingrained in me. Freedom of speech is a valuable and beautiful part about being an American. We have the right to say and think as we feel. But that power and responsibility does not come without limits. And I, for one, am grateful for them.

With great power comes great responsibility. Sadly, I fear too many of us have failed to recognize that when it comes to what we say and how we act out our political beliefs. I only hope we can somehow overcome that in the next few years.