So each day I try to learn from my words and the words of others. I try each day to better use words to communicate what I want people to know about me. Each day I succeed and each day I fail. Each day somebody misunderstands or misrepresents my words.
Sometimes people try to turn my words against me. Sometimes people call or write my superiors to complain that I said something I didn’t say. Sometimes they complain that they know what I meant even though I never said what they claim.
Words sometimes trouble me and you.
Above all, though, words matter.
When the Penn State child sex assault investigation broke, a caller asked me what congressmen Lou Barletta, Tom Mario and then Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had in common.
I answered pretty quickly that they were all Republicans.
Good answer, I thought, because it was true.
But the caller was headed elsewhere.
“They’re all Italian,” he said.
I felt sucker-punched because I didn’t see it coming. I should have, though, because over the years some people have tried to smear my name and harm my credibility by trying to paint me as being anti-Italian. The campaign started during my criticism of local business hero Louis DeNaples who, at the time, was under arrest for perjury on charges prosecutors later dropped. I had based my criticism on facts, not ethnicity, the same way I shape my criticism of Barletta, Marino and the late Paterno.
But some people refused to back off.
One guy in particular attacks against me on his Facebook page, accusing me of slurring Italian-Americans. I left three unreturned messages on his home phone. Then I approached him respectfully at the Columbus Day flag-raising on Courthouse Square in Scranton and asked him to call me.
But he never called.
Then one day I had a chance to hurt or help this man.
All I asked in return was that he knew what I had done for him. Maybe he would understand that I would not have helped him if I was the bigot he had unjustly accused me of being. The man finally called my home and left a message. But I did not return his call. He had tried to hurt me because of words I never said. I chose not to hurt him in return because that would have been dishonorable. I did not, however, have to call him back.
Hopefully he learned something from the experience. I know I did. And I know how angry and hurt I felt when my character was impugned. So you see how complicated words can be.
I have over the years misspoken on the air. I have erred. I have made mistakes and I have apologized. But I have never put myself in the position that Rush Limbaugh put himself when he last week singled out a young woman and called her a slut and a prostitute simply because she believes that birth control should be a fair part of health insurance coverage.
My most powerful personal challenges are directed at elected public officials who betray the public trust. They and their powerful business accomplices commit crimes and ethics breeches with impunity and immunity.
Such privilege must be aggressively challenged.
That’s what I do.
That’s what all good citizens must do to fight political and business corruption.
Words are weapons. Words are societal building blocks. Words are sacred. Words convey wisdom and woe. And, woe, not wisdom, awaits those who use their words unwisely.