“Listen, son,” said the man with the gun, “there’s room for you inside.”
— Pink Floyd, “Us and Them”
Ironic that I would follow up a blog about the need to keep talking with one about people who talk entirely too much.
As I stress whenever I lead a workshop on communication, there are two ways of talking: at each other, which is largely useless; or with each other, which is where communication happens.
Nowhere is the first more evident than the horrifying rhetoric we’ve witnessed in the past week between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. We would already be staring at a radioactive wasteland were the risk of nuclear war measured solely on chest-thumping.
Thank God it isn’t. But when you consider the power of words, the bombastic exchange of recent days represents the first salvo.
North Korea has been a major irritant for decades, one that the West has failed to manage. With its increased nuclear capability—including, claim intelligence experts, devices small enough to fit inside its missiles—Kim is now the wanna-be playground tough showing off the brass knuckles he got for Christmas. Then there’s Trump, who thinks he’s the tough guy, going around the playground reminding the other kids of this, only to see most ignore him—or worse, snicker at him.
And like any playground clash, every “Oh yeah?” “Yeah!” exchange escalates the tension, bringing the inevitable fisticuffs closer and closer to happening. Problem is, it isn’t just the two chest-thumpers who will end up with bloodied noses.
Trump’s “fire and fury” ad-lib did exactly what he wanted it to do: It played to his base. Put crassly, his supporters measure America’s greatness by its ability to kick everyone else’s ass. That’s why Trump piled on, both verbally (“utters one threat…he will regret it fast”) and on Twitter (“Military solutions...locked and loaded”).
(Amusingly, actor Kal Penn asked Twitter if Trump’s tweet, in essence a threat to attack North Korea, violated Twitter’s terms of service.)
While Trump’s tirades succeed with his followers, they’ve been worse than useless in resolving the crisis. Kim, who frequently blusters about destroying the United States, has met every threat with threats of his own, promising to bomb—or more likely near-bomb—the U.S. territory of Guam. (Incredibly, this prompted Trump and Guam Gov. Eddie Calvo to suggest the standoff will merely increase tourism.)
I’d like to think neither Trump nor Kim want a nuclear war. I’d like to think both believe their back-and-forth is mere theater. I’d like to think there’s a plan for these tensions to bring both nations to the bargaining table. But I fear there are those on both sides who would applaud a war.
Even if the goal is peace, we cannot forget the risk of escalation. Words have power. And in this case, every careless threat is an exchange of fire. Every eye-for-an-eye promise is a troop movement. Increasingly harsh words risk bringing us to a point of no return, where words give way to weapons.
This isn't limited to the looming conflict with North Korea. Consider the National Rifle Association's appalling video threat against the New York Times, all but a rallying cry to its membership to carry out violence against the Times or anyone in the Fourth Estate who dares question the NRA's gun-brandishing gospel.
Again, words have power. Words can heal or they can destroy.
And there’s a reason why bombast hangs on the word “bomb."