What We Say and How We Say It, Matters
At least, that’s the pep talk I’ve been giving myself. Recently, I summoned the courage to confront someone about their hateful words. I believe in free speech, but I also believe that we should be vigilant in our businesses and organizations to encourage kind speech, and discourage hateful speech. Words can be used to communicate and uplift, or they can be used to hurt and destroy.
You don’t have to look too far in this country to see the creeping normalcy of name-calling and insults used to describe fellow humans. Worse, you don’t have to look too far to see that people will condone this kind of behavior with excuses like “he’s just passionate” or she’s just being authentic.” And what of silence and inaction? Isn’t that condoning too?
We live in coarse times where “please” and “thank you” are little remembered relics of a distant past. And what about “I’m sorry?” Does anyone pause anymore to reflect upon his or her own behavior, reconsider and apologize? It seems like doubling down is more the order of the day and that it comes with no regard for conscience. I don’t know how I would have celebrated 30 years of marriage without an apology readied on my lips, but I digress. . .
This short piece could be about our political climate, but really it’s about a microcosm of that climate in my personal life. Harsh and hateful language caused me to call out someone I worked with in a volunteer organization. The words were not directed at me. They were used to describe and elderly couple who had volunteered for our organization. The couple hadn’t committed any crime other than being at the low-end of the economic ladder. What they were called and how they were described would cause me embarrassment to write.
In speaking up I realized that I was not going to be able to rise to the occasion of the organization’s mission being more important to me than basic human decency, so I left. I quit. And it’s in the aftermath of my decision of doing what I believed was the right thing, that I now grieve the loss that comes with such a choice.
Courage is not born of emotional or physical strength. It’s often demonstrated in the throes of fear. It includes the element of loss, because speaking out for what you believe sometimes leaves little choice but to separate yourself from the offender. I believe that words have power and that how we speak to each other determines the quality of our society. I am not without a stain in my interaction with the person who used such hateful language. In a moment of shock, I told him that he should be ashamed of himself. There was undoubtedly a better way that I could have handled it, and for that I am sorry. When I look back, however, I wonder if any word choice would have caused him to pause, or if he would have doubled down anyway.
When did we become so inept at general kindness? When did we become so harsh in our rhetoric? Are “please” and “thank you” really dead? Do we waste our time and our breath in calling out vitriolic, hateful speech or should we simply be living by example? When are our silences about such things a wise choice and when are they complicit? And most of all, how do we nurture the collective heart of human kindness so that we stop talking like school yard bullies and start talking as if life and love mattered?