I have in mind a quote from our tradition. “Which is the right course that a person should choose?” asks Rabbi Yehudah haNasi. “A course that brings dignity to the one who adopts it while earning honor from others.”
I guess I took a few linguistic liberties. When I was a young boy my father put up a sign on the bulletin board in my bedroom. “Engage brain before starting tongue.” It was his not so subtle way to remind me that the words we speak matter. They must be truthful. Just as important they must be thoughtful. I must have learned the lesson. The sign came down before I started Middle School.
I wish I could post an electronic version of that poster all over the Internet. Have you read the comments sections that follow most on-line articles? Just plain nasty is what many of them are. Rude and crude, vicious and bigoted, much Internet commentary rarely discusses the merits of an article or an issue. It does imagine many inappropriate things about the article’s author. I can’t quote any examples. They often involve racial epithets and rants and very disturbing descriptions of intimate acts.
Here’s an interesting tidbit. Back in the 1970s, computer scientists chatting in the first electronic discussion boards noticed that when they talked to one another virtually there was “an escalation of critical comments, and an increase in the frequency with which people would respond with short negative messages.” The scientists called these exchanges the “flame wars,” making them the first documented instance of tasteless online behavior.
A mass culture of vulgar attack commentary thrives on the Internet just below the surface of polite social conversation. Actual spoken discourse isn’t much better. On an almost daily basis the spoken, public, rhetoric of leaders, would-be-leaders, pundits, and bigots fans intolerance and ignorance. Violence rises. Tolerance wanes.
Why? Why are Internet commentaries so mean? Why is harmful, disrespectful language acceptable? Why doesn’t everyone learn my father’s lesson? “Engage brain before starting tongue.”
It seems to be part of human nature. In a culture that encourages us to self-promote, some of us become self-absorbed. We feel self-important. Lacking inhibition because we’re so self-confident, we don’t filter our words as responsibly as we could. Online, there’s no context. We miss all social cues. No one is reacting in front of us. We don’t see their facial reaction or body language, their anger or laughter. We feel no reason to mitigate our words. Many who troll on-line are legends in their own minds, and likely very lonely people. Many who speak harmfully out loud seem to thrive on the attention it gets them. I’d like them to know it’s the wrong reason to be famous.
I’m embarrassed for so many public figures who destroy their dignity and amused by people who impose themselves on others without self-awareness. Let’s be sure we’re not among them.
How many of us here have said something harsh to someone we love or to someone we don’t know very well? How many times have we mocked someone else? Who have we judged unfairly based on their appearance or our perception of their usefulness? Remember: “Engage brain before starting tongue.”
“Which is the right course that a person should choose?” asks Rabbi Yehudah haNasi. “A course that brings dignity to the one who adopts it while earning honor from others.”
I recently heard an interview with the actor David Oyelowo who played Martin Luther King in the film Selma. The interviewer asked what kind of roles he turns down. Mr. Oyelowo answered that he never takes a role he can’t believe in. He won’t play a part of anything that overtly celebrates darkness or sanctions it. His goal as an actor, as in life, is to penetrate the darkness so that the light wins out. “I choose that what I put out into the world is edifying not detrimental.”
I hope we can all try to do that as we remember this simple truth. Rhetoric matters. Our word choices are important in the greater community where we live and work. Our word choices are important in the Jewish community, especially when our passions flare, as they do these days. How we speak to each other and what we choose to say reflect on us. Our words demonstrate more than our thoughts. They portray our attitudes. They represent our character. They tell others something really honest about who we each are.
Any rhetoric that disrespects a person with whom we disagree, even someone we don’t like, lessens the merit of our perspective in real debate or discussion. Directly put: it’s impolite. It’s undignified and never justified. It sets the tone of our community and society. Cruel words motivate cruel acts. All words endure. Let them be words that heal and help. Let them be words that explain and clarify. Do not let them be words that hurt and harm.
Since I can’t enforce this on-line, I hope we can choose to apply it in life. Let’s choose to put edifying and uplifting messages out into the world. Let’s engage our brains before starting our tongues.