The Tone of Our Discourse

§ January 16th, 2011 § Filed under communication, training, writing § Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , § 6 Comments

“At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized, at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do, it is important for us to pause a moment and make sure we are talking to each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”  – Barack Obama

Last month, I listed some communication resolutions for 2011. Apparently I don’t have a widespread enough audience yet to reach the entire country. I have listened to friends, acquaintances, newscasters, and pundits explain what happened in Tucson and what the root causes of the problem are. I agree with the President who said that a lack of civility did not cause this tragedy.

The issue of our country’s discourse is a two-pronged one. There is a legal standard. Free speech is guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution. That means that you have the right to say anything you want. However, throughout history our courts have limited that right. You do not have the right to incite violence. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote:  “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”

I am not a fan of Sarah Palin, and I find her response to her perceived attack over this tragedy self-centered and disappointing at best. However, I will defend to my death her right to place gun-site type targets over a map of Congressional districts. I will even defend her right to say things like “Don’t retreat. Reload!”

We now have people who believe that the country is on fire and they need to scream to make sure we all feel the same fear.  I get it. There are those who believe that the country is sliding into socialism or fascism. They are tired of being politically correct.  They are genuinely afraid of what will happen if the health care bill continues to be enacted.  I defend their legal right to be as strident and loud and discourteous as they want.

I do wish, however, they would consider the practical aspect to all this rhetoric. Consider the scenario in the Holmes quote. If you are in a theater that truly is on fire, do you want someone yelling “Fire”? Or would you prefer someone who calmly explains that there is a danger and that you should quickly proceed to the nearest exit?

The second prong is a decency standard.  So much has been said these last few days about the tone in this country. Yes, we all have the legal right to be offensive.  However, just because we have the right to be rude doesn’t mean we should be.

When I hear people say they are “tired of being politically correct,” what I hear is that those people are tired of being polite and do not care if they offend. What is wrong with being more inclusive? Why can’t we use the filters we have been given?

We need to find ways to put across our thoughts and ideas, even those that are passionately held, without insulting others. Engaging our brains before we open our mouths is still sound advice.

So I will repeat my final resolution from last month: resolve to be kinder. As President Obama said in Tucson, “We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us.”

6 Responses to “The Tone of Our Discourse”

  • Linda says:

    As I always have said, we choose our attitude each day when we open our eyes. I have known this to be so very true this year more than ever.

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Crystal Darby, crystaldarby, Crystal Darby, crystaldarby, Ashley Festa and others. Ashley Festa said: Beautifully written article on the freedom of speech and the need for filters by @bestcommcoach […]

  • Lee Anna says:

    Well said.
    Just because I can be a jerk does not mean I have to be one.

    Being civil, conversing with people and not shouting at them has a decidedly positive result with regard to our health. Lower blood pressure! Since many of our citizens are without insurance, good health is also a key issue in our country.

  • admin says:

    Thanks for the comments, Linda and Lee Anna! And thanks for reading!

  • Melanie says:

    All I can say following that is “Here, Here!” to civility. May it over run this country.

  • admin says:

    Wouldn’t that be wonderful, Melanie!? We might actually be able to accomplish something big, like solving our problems!

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