"Words are the voice of the heart."

- Confucius

The targets of Mel Gibson's thoughtless words were people of the Jewish faith.

For Michael Richards of Kramer fame, it's African-Americans.

For Fred Phelps, who claims to be a man of God, it's folks who happen to be gay.

Now, don't be fooled. There is a difference: Gibson and Richards both apologized; Phelps believes he speaks for God on his "godhatesfags" Web site, and unless he experiences some sort of epiphany before his death, there'll be no apologies.

Apologies for what, you might ask.

Earlier this year, Gibson was charged with drunken driving. What followed was Gibson's roadside anti-Semitic tirade toward a police officer.

He apologized. He was sorry, he said, if he offended anyone.

If?

Oh, and by the way, "I am not a bigot."

"If you wish to know the mind of a man, listen to his words." - Chinese proverb

Last week, Richards was performing stand-up comedy at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood.

He said he was heckled by a member of the audience, a person who happened to be African-American.

Richards snapped. Caught on a video-equipped digital camera, his diatribe soon made it to the Internet and captured the attention of the country.

He ranted, tossing one racial slur after another before walking off the stage.

Monday night he apologized on David Letterman's show, the laughter of the audience his apology's soundtrack.

He said he was sorry if he offended anyone.

If?

Oh, and by the way, "I'm not a racist."

"If you wish to know the mind of a man, listen to his words."

Fred Phelps continues to spew his hatred for homosexuals and others. In fact, his plans were to picket the funerals of the four young innocent girls killed in Monday's school bus accident in Huntsville, Ala. Only God knows why. I hope his plans were thwarted.

"A word carries far - very far - and deals destruction through time as the bullets go flying through space." - Joseph Conrad

Believe it or not, words wield a great deal of power. For good or for ill.

And I've given a great deal of thought in the past days about a silly chant we used to hear as children: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."

I'm here to tell you, if you don't already know - that's one of life's largest lies.

I may have shouted it more than a few times at a playground bully or a hurtful friend just before retreating to a quiet place to nurse a breaking heart.

"A word once uttered can never be recalled." - Horace

Words hurt. Apologies, even from the heart, may not bring about reconciliation. Thought should precede speech.

Perhaps these very public examples might cause us to take greater care with our own words, remembering they have the power to help. The power to hurt.

And they also give others a glimpse into who we are.

Leslie Criss is the Daily Journal's features and special sections editor. Contact her at leslie.criss@djournal .com or 678-1584.

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