COMMENT:

Words have weight and this past week they have felt very heavy with meaning and sorrow. They weigh down the heart, sometimes as an anchor, sometimes as an ache.

Words can be both a release and a trap as the dialogue winds its way across the nation and the world between the poles of good and evil. Words can be strong. They can be cast as weakness by those intent on denying their meaning.

The sheer enormity of the deaths of 50 people by the hand of one is hard to get the head around.

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The scale of this event stretches the mind to try and encompass the almost surreal sense of dismay. I find the more I contemplate the why's and what if's, the more they expand to fill the space with sadness.

To find balance, it seems important to hang onto the wise words. These provide a shield against the way words have become weapons to be used to incite xenophobia and bigotry.

Words can cast stereotypes, create labels to stick on those deemed to be "other". Declaring some people to be "other", with words that suggest "they" are not like us - creates a dangerous illusion that the "other" can therefore be treated cruelly because to be "other" means they do not belong.

There are also words than can help us understand how people can do evil things. Read Professor Philip Zimbardo's book called The Lucifer Effect. He writes of research and studies that illustrate the dynamic that enables some to act with extreme cruelty to their fellow human beings.

More importantly, the final chapters provide guidance on how to identify the signs that can alert society to such dangers and ways that we can, collectively and individually, act to disarm the consequences.

In this age of social media this task has become both easier and harder. People can readily condemn or condone with their use of words. The troll turns words against the writer, the social justice warrior can cast light upon words that provoke bigotry and challenge.

This is the dilemma of free speech. Even this concept has been hijacked by extremists who, when challenged, hide behind the guise of defending free speech when their use of words is intended to harm, denigrate, diminish and threaten people's lives.

Words have power. We can use that power to discredit those who would use words to ferment hate by refusing to accept their views. The way to make an extremist know their words have not reached us is to ignore them. Notoriety to nobody. Forgotten not famous.

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We also need to remind politicians of all stripes that rhetoric and fear mongering to garner votes will not be tolerated. The desire for power is a shallow conceit that often feeds on fear, stoking prejudice and intolerance in order to create an environment in which politicians can then offer to "save" voters.

So far, our own MPs have not done this over the past week. There are some who have done this in the past and may need reminding that people do have long memories and that attempts to blame various social and economic woes on foreigners have not been forgotten.

We can vaccinate ourselves against extreme views by taking a daily dose of the kindness and caring that gives us the human part of the word humanity.

Terry Sarten (aka Tel) is a writer, musician and social worker. Feedback: tgs@inspire.net.nz