Monday, January 24, 2011
© 2011, the Institute for Applied Common Sense
Since we started writing about personal responsibility in April of 2008, many have suggested that our approach is far too simplistic and child-like.
We frequently refer to sayings by “old folks” uttered “back in the day,” or bits of parental advice, e.g., “If you can’t say something nice about someone, say nothing at all.”
Sometimes we actually have to stop and ask whether the principles suggested are (1) universally and consistently true; (2) only capable of application in certain situations; or (3) applicable simply when the person choosing to use them finds it convenient.
Some of you may recall, “Sticks and stones may break my bones; but words will never hurt me.”
Over the years, we’ve generally been members of the Sticks and Stones School of Thought (originally known as the Turn the Other Cheek School). In our view, targets of racial slurs, inappropriate jokes, sexist comments and such might justifiably be offended, but should simply ignore the offending idiots and move right along. After all, with few exceptions, the offending speech is protected speech.
To some extent, our devotion to this school of thought stems from growing up in the South during the late 1940s and 1950s as a survival technique.
We’ve felt the same regarding symbols, like the Confederate flag. All the time spent organizing an anti-flag rally, traveling to and from the offending state, and participating in the rally, might be better spent generating income – income which could be used for scholarships for poor kids. Education makes people better equipped to prove their worth and value in society, despite what others might think.
We always recognized that our view did not apply to adult – child relationships, or perhaps adult, interpersonal relationships. Constant criticism and hostility in those relationships can potentially inflict long-term, emotional damage.
Where things get a little fuzzy is when the clamor and acrimony are in the public arena, and not directed at specific individuals, or are of a political nature.
During the debate following the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, we wondered about the role that, what some described as the poisonous, acrimonious state of political discourse, may have played. However, we initially felt that the acts of someone suffering from mental instability could not possibly be connected to a sufficient degree for the discussion to even continue.
That is until one of our readers, SmallFootprints, sent us a post by another blogger, whose blog is The River Wanders… but is never lost. In the article, entitled Campaign Silent, the author argues that an environment has been carefully crafted where violence is the new norm. The author goes on to note:
“Does one word, one sign, one blogged paragraph incite violence? Probably [italics in original] not. But I’m not talking about one careless word, one careless sign, one careless comment, one carelessly blogged paragraph. The sheer volume of hate-speech today is accessible and acceptable and toxic and seductive and probably does [italics in original] incite violence. The truth is this: the crazy is out there – the mentally ill who hear inappropriate sentiment as a call to action, the bitterly angry who don’t care who they hurt as long as we share their pain, and the disenfranchised coteries whose groupthink becomes their way of life. To all of us, but especially [italics in original] to these unique populations, language matters. Words matter. Images matter. Message matters.”
While we do not agree with everything the author has to say, and reading it did not convince us to pick up our toys and leave the playground, the piece forced us to re-visit our position.
There was something else we considered about the power of words and the environment in which they operate. For the past several weeks, the History Channel has been re-airing its series on The Third Reich. They chronicle the regime’s rise to power in the 1930s.
Throughout, before rolling film of the atrocities committed by Nazi troops, there appears a screen with simple words used as propaganda to urge the troops to proceed, and to justify the cruelty to the general population.
Arguably, we all have a responsibility to carefully consider the words that we spew out into the Universe, and the potential consequences when people hear them. It’s been said that, “All is fair in love and war,” and perhaps politics. That may not be the case with respect to public discourse.
And, although we, the Fellows of the Institute, may not be personally concerned about less than civil words hurled at us on an individual level (and we are not motivated to act on those words), we now appreciate that there may be others out there for whom words have a different effect.
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