The Voldemort Effect

When I kiss my teacher husband goodbye before work, I know that if a gunman attacked his students, I’d probably never see him again because he would do anything to protect those kooky, amazing teenagers who challenge him, infuriate him, make him laugh, and give him one of his best reasons to get up in the morning.  When I kiss my five-year-old goodbye before school, I know that I’m sending him out into a large and perilous world, full of danger and opportunity, and I know his teacher, like my husband, would do anything to protect her bright, quirky, beautiful kids.

But I’m not just the wife of a teacher or the mother of  a kindergartner.  I’m the mother of boys, and as I read the news and see the images, I’m shell-shocked, wondering how someone’s baby disintegrates to the point of becoming a killer of children.

On Saturday morning, I heard a local radio show host say something like, “The shooter–I’m not going to say his name, because we don’t say the names of spree-shooters.”  My gut reaction was, “Good!”  But as soon as I actually thought about it, it felt uncomfortable.  And the more I thought, the more outraged Facebook posts I saw, the more weirdly contradictory news articles I read, the more this bothered me.

Words have power.  They create, and they destroy.  Many of us who’d never touch a gun wield words with lethal force.  We brandish them at each other with the intent to defend ourselves, to wound, to lash out, to make a preemptive strike.  Just like guns, words can be used with devastating effect by people who don’t really understand them and don’t think before aiming them at someone else.

The mushrooming of social media has intensified this.  How many of us have lost respect for a friend because of an ill-thought-out post?  How many of us have allowed ourselves to feel “less-than” or attacked by someone’s thoughtlessly-worded opinion?  How many nasty arguments have you seen plastered across someone’s wall?  In the toneless freedom of cyberspace, we hide behind our laptops and smartphones, pontficating into the void.  But the problem is that all arrows eventually find a mark, even if it’s not the intended target.

Words are powerful, and the refusal to speak a word is evidence of that power.  It is precisely because words are powerful that we need to speak the unspeakable.  The argument, as I understand it, is that speaking a shooter’s name somehow glorifies him.  But this doesn’t make sense to me.  Nobody’s claiming he was the greatest guy ever.  Nobody’s arguing that we should praise him and uplift him as a shining beacon of moral righteousness.  Acknowledging that people died does not glorify death, and speaking the truth does not imply agreement.

Imagine if we never named the darkness, if we never spoke the names of the things that terrify us.  It’s ignorance that’s a breeding-ground for evil, not knowledge.  Pedophiles like to target kids who don’t have the correct words for the parts of their bodies, and who don’t have the confidence to use those words to speak up.  Imagine history books that omitted the names of the villains.  Are we glorifying Hitler by speaking his name?  Wouldn’t it be worse if we forgot where darkness comes from?

In the Harry Potter books, Harry quickly establishes himself as a bit of an odd fish in the wizarding world by insisting on speaking the name of the evil wizard.  Otherwise brave and reasonable characters flatly refuse to say “Voldemort” and quake with fear when Harry does it, first in unintentional and later in conscious defiance of the taboo.  Saying “Voldemort” is not the same thing as slapping an “I Heart Voldemort!” bumper sticker on your broomstick.  To name the darkness is to demonstrate that it doesn’t control you, that the mere sound of a word doesn’t send you into paroxysms of fear.

When we refuse to speak a word, there’s also the unintended consequence of empowering it, even making it sacred.  In how many religions is there an unspeakable name for the Divine?  Is this really what we want to do with the names of criminals–sanctify them, empower them so that their very letters and syllables become a kind of forbidden incantation?  What better way to get people to want something than to deny it?  Make it a taboo and everyone will become fascinated by it.

The last thing we need is a shroud of mystery around violence.  Our culture already glamorizes it way too much.  The shooter was a human being.  He committed a monstrous crime, and in the end he was so broken and lost that he killed himself.  There’s no glamor in his death, nothing to be emulated or respected.  But there’s also nothing to be gained by demonizing him, no good that can come from turning the passion of our hatred against a dead man who was so broken to begin with that he lost his own sense of humanity.

Words aren’t just for saying things we like to hear.  That’s easy to forget in a world of tweets and followers, where we can block the people whose opinions make us uncomfortable.  But the Voldemort effect is real, and in refusing to acknowledge another human being, no matter how broken, I think we feed in some small way into the ignorance that breeds fear and hatred.  The shooter didn’t get this way by being acknowledged and listened to, by being upheld and loved.  It wasn’t too much affection, too much attention, too much self-esteem that brought him to the breaking point.  If we refuse to say his name, we are only perpetuating, in a small and petty and pointless way, the kind of disconnectedness that drives a young man barely out of his teens to murder innocent children and adults.

There’s darkness in all of us.  Should we ignore it?  We’ve all wounded others.  Should we pretend we haven’t?  We won’t stop violence by pretending the perpetrators don’t exist, or by comforting ourselves with the notion that we’re better than them or they’re less than human.  What if we mourned not only the loss of innocent lives, but the profound tragedy of a shattered human soul?  What if we stopped trying to figure out how to keep violence out of schools and instead figured out how to build a society where no one ever considers violence as an option?

In refusing to name him now, we value ignorance over knowledge, silence over revelation, fear over truth, and vehemence over compassion.  We won’t make a hero of him by speaking his name.  But we make less of ourselves when we dehumanize the broken and lost, when we make a Voldemort of an Adam Lanza.

2 thoughts on “The Voldemort Effect

  1. The argument the “don’t give him glory” folks use is that the fame, good or bad is what these killers are looking for and may potentially encourage future crazies. But using the same argument they are using for guns– that crazy will find a way– I doubt the presence of fame would do any more or less than the presence of a killer’s name. Gun owners claim that good gun owners use their weapons sensibly and judiciously. Word owners should simply do the same. I’m with you. Let no word gain power over us, rather let us acknowledge their power for both good and evil and choose how often and in what context we speak the name of fearfully forbidden.

  2. Heidi, good point that we should always be careful what we speak. It’s just hard for me to imagine how anyone who ends a rampage by killing himself is in it for the fame. I wonder if anyone’s taken a good, hard look at the theology of killers–if they somehow think that their infamy will immortalize them, for example. Anyone who wants to be known for evil acts is pretty sick to begin with and needs help. I’m totally not on board with glorifying killers, but I don’t think that pretending they don’t exist or that they’re not people is the answer. When you look at photos of spree shooters, they look troubled and wounded but otherwise pretty ordinary. I think the larger issue is that our entire culture has glorified violence itself, whether it’s through TV, film, video games, music, or pop fiction. Nobody sane wants to be like Adam Lanza, but a lot of people admire gunslinging heroes who shoot at the slightest provocation, and who represent a kind of sexualized violence that’s deeply disturbing.

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