The New Political Speech Standard: If we wouldn't let our kids say it, then it has no place in political discourse

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Grab some coffee or a big glass of wine or a liter of water. Because I have something to say and it's going to take a while.

As a child, I was often told that I was "too sensitive." I remember feeling, when people said that, that I didn't know what they meant. It wasn't that I didn't know the meaning of the word itself, but I didn't understand how it was being applied to me.

Often, that charge was said to me when I reacted outwardly to feelings of being hurt - that is, when I let my feelings show. I can see now, especially as a parent myself, that the speaker was probably trying to get me to shrug off something that had been said to me or done to me.  They tried to get me to shrug it off, with the phrase, "You're just being too sensitive," as a way of telling me that I was someone who feels hurt too easily.  And their saying that to me also required that they felt that whatever had been said or done didn't, in their estimation, merit hurt feelings. And that their estimation overrode my actual feelings of hurt.

Nowadays, you might think of this as something some people refer to as de-legitimizing someone's feelings or invalidating them.

So who is to judge whether any of us should feel hurt? Who defines the threshold for when any one of us feels hurt? And why must we believe or accept that someone other than us should and can define for us and the rest of the world that what has been said or done should or shouldn't give rise to us feeling hurt?

Now, the fact that I'm suggesting that you think about those questions might sound as though I'm arguing that there is no objective standard for whether or not some act, behavior or speech can be judged universally as hurtful, offensive, wrong, off-limits, plain old mean, or none of those things at all and, in fact, just something to be shrugged off.

But that is the furthest idea from what I'm intending to imply or have you infer.  And so, what I am going to do is expose myself in order to demonstrate the following:

1. What I believe is already the standard that many of us very likely use for knowing when acts or words will be hurtful enough that we shouldn't use them. 

2. Why it is that it matters that we evaluate the hurt potential in anything we say or do, and that the results of that evauluation has nothing to do with whether or not the one against whom the act or words are directed actually feels hurt.

3. This standard (for knowing when an act or our words are going to be so hurtful that we shouldn't use them) does not and should not change simply because political acts or speech are involved.

Between the ages of eight and sixteen, I attended three different overnight camps. For six of those summers, I was a camper at the same all-girls camp in the middle of Maine. Just to get this over with: it was the stuff of New York/Long Island/Westchester Jewish American Princess stereotypes.

Except, I was the one that didn't fit in - you know how "there's always one"? I was that one. I'd heard the too sensitive thing from my parents, my siblings, teachers, the parents of friends of mine. Now, counselors used it too and of course that didn't help my lack of being just like all the others.  I even was the only one from: Connecticut! And not Long Guyland.

So, for the first three years, when I was between the ages of eight and eleven, although I may have wanted to conform, there wasn't all that much I could do about it. I'd ask my parents for certain things that the other girls had, but I knew my parents were non-conformists too and the answer was usually going to be no. (One example I recall is that my stationery was from CVS or the local drugstore while all the other kids seemed to have the Hallmark store stationer. A few of you may know exactly what I'm talking about: we traded stationery during rest hours, but no one ever wanted mine because it was considered too plain or just plain cheap).

Now, I'm not telling you this because I love these memories. I don't, and my parents know I don't, and we're past it all.  The bottom line then was: I just wanted to be liked and accepted, and I wasn't.

Until my third year at this camp.  That summer, I again, like my second summer, was placed in a bunk with all the "leftovers" - the girls no one else had listed as wanting to have as bunkmates.  However, that year, I finally developed lasting friendships with four or five girls and for the next three summers, we were assigned to be together.

But during my fourth summer at this same camp, when I was 11 turning 12, something happened that changed me forever and is the basis for why I say that there are not two standards for the way we speak to or about other people, especially when that speech has to do with our positions as role models, to anyone.

I was out on the camp's lake with a few other girls during our watercraft lesson - a fancy word for boating. Our instructor was a college age woman who worked as a counselor and a boating teacher. There were maybe three or four of us in the boat. I remember being rowdy, laughing and pointing at each other.  But this playfulness turned into mocking and eventually, we mocked Becky.

You see, Becky had a scar which, although we didn't know it at the time because we were in fact ignorant of why she had the scar, was the result of her having been born with a cleft lip and palate.  She also had a slight lisp in her speech.

I don't recall precisely how we mocked her - what we said or did. I think it was general insubordination, we were refusing to settle down while we were laughing among ourselves and we talked back at her, including some kind of a name call related to the scar and/or lisp.  I can remember thinking at that moment, "I can't believe we just did that," but it wasn't until a few hours later, when we were called down to the camp owner's cabin home that it became all too real.

First, they asked us if we knew why we were there.  We were so embarassed, no one spoke, as I remember it. I think the owners did eventually tell us that it was because we had teased this counselor.  We were told that we were on probation, that our parents had been called and that they were told that we would be sent home if we did any single other thing that broke the code of conduct expected of campers.

Now, I wasn't all that fond of these owners.  They were kind of kookie to me.  I do still remember their name but I'm going to leave that out, it's not relevant to the story, but if you've seen Dirty Dancing, think of the resort owner.  They weren't quite like that but something in the same league.

But their intervention with us, with me, as a result of the teasing we'd done, I'd done, to this 18-22 year old counselor, has stayed with me my whole life.  The owners told us that we had laughed at someone else's expense and that the laughter we had led to another person feeling hurt. I remember breaking down and crying in their cabin, to think of what I had made this woman feel.  And the owners, parents themselves, seized on my shame by reminding me that just a year before, I'd been placed yet again in the "leftovers" bunk and that of all the kids who had been on that boat, I should have known better, having been the object of teasing for two summers in a row.

Talk about feeling low and small.  And I was only 12 years old.

I can still remember how absolutely wretched as in feeling like a wretch I felt then and for a long, long time afterwards.

When I returned home after that summer, my family had moved to a new town and I was in a new school, junior high school.  I was teased a lot and I had almost no friends, but I never teased back, I never bullied, I never made fun of anyone. I refused to hit back verbally or physically. I pulled my punches and my thoughts because of what had happened that summer - and because I had felt the hurt from being teased before. I knew.  And I agreed that my creating something to laugh about was not worth the hurt that someone might feel, having known, myself, what that hurt could feel like.

This incident became the basis for my standard of judging whether something is okay to say about another person: if I would not want to hear my own children say it, then absolutely, no adult should be saying it either.  That is, if I am teaching my children that you don't tease, mock or name-call other kids, then I want them to grow up and be adults who won't do any of that either.

Ironically, on Diane Rehm today, at about the 10:50am time, a caller called in and asked this very question: how is it that we can teach our kids about how they should behave but then, when people become adults, we let that all go (the context was politics).

Why does it matter, that we teach our kids and that likewise, we try to evaluate the hurt potential in
anything we say or do, and that we teach our kids that that evauluation has
nothing to do with whether or not the one against whom the act or words
are directed actually ends up feeling hurt?

It matters because 1) kids do need to learn that what they say or do reflects upon them - not on the sensitivity of the person against whom it's directed (think about Hit A Jew Day) and 2) because if we don't evaluate what we are saying about other people, with regard to how it might make them feel, we are demonstrating our own lack of humanity.  And this year's presidential election is the best example around.

How can I make such a sweeping suggestion? For one reason, loshon hora, as explained by Can You Be A Part of My Life:

Loshon Hora (the evil tongue ... or slander) is considered among the
Jewish people as one of the worst sins imaginable ... one almost
tantamount to murder in that the good name, livelihood, reputation,
etc. can all be destroyed by a single word, look, expression.
Therefore, we have laws in great detail explaining all the
ramifications of slander ... all its appearances and some ways of
rectifying the results ... knowing that full restitution is not always
possible ... the results are then left between the perpetrator, the
victim, and G-d.

When I went through leadership training at my synagogue, one entire training session was spent on gossip and loshon hora.  And even though, when I was growing up, I don't remember being told specifically about loshon hora, I knew of the concept.  My favorite example of how this works in real life is the story of how, when I was deciding on a caterer for my son's bar mitzvah, I interviewed two kosher caterers. Cleveland just isn't that big and of course they know each other.  So my final question to each of them, after I'd finished asking them everything else was, "What makes you better than the other one?"

And you know what? Even given the chance to say why they were better - I asked, what do you do that they don't do or what puts you ahead of them, they would never say a single bad word about the other.  They would only say that they know there are many choices in town, they would repeat to me what made them unique and what they could to help me make a great occasion, and that was that. 

THEY WOULD NEVER SPEAK ABOUT THE OTHER PERSON.  No matter that their small businesses depended on people like me.  They just, would not, do it.

Judaism is not alone in admonishing its followers for being mean, talking down and putting down others for one's own benefit. Nordette shared with me this old press release from the United Methodist Church chastising the media for spreading rumors during Clinton's struggles. Then, from Christian Women Today, an article on gossip.

Another CE shared with me some quotes from the Christian Bible about speech. I have no ability to interpret them other than on their face, so I know perhaps they aren't what they appear to be, but overall, these quotes seem to imply the same thing as the rule about if it's not going to be okay for your child to say it, it sure isn't okay for anyone else, and maybe especially certain people:

Romans 1:29 – “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips.”

Matthew 7:1 – “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”

Matthew 7:12 – “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

Ephesians 4:29 – “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

Finally, the same CE also shared this article about gossip and Hinduism.  This notion I have of not being nice isn't out of thin air, or a too sensitive constitution of mine.

So, then, what about voters and the people who want our vote? Politics and politicians.  Does any of this apply and should it?

I say yes, and yes. (Here's an article from a Reform Judaism publication from just two weeks ago about loshon hora in the elections this year.)

We've been on a slippery slope in public discourse for years. I'm not going to go into the causes of it - I don't actually know all the theories but I'm sure there are more than enough for several posts.  But without even thinking, I can list off:

Dick Cheney dropping the f-bomb in a congressional hearing (he never apologizes)

Imus slurring an entire women's basketball team (he apologizes)

Ann Coulter calling John Edwards a faggot (she calls it just a schoolyard taunt)

Randi Rhodes speaking unspeakable things about Hillary Clinton

An Ohioan hangs Obama in effigy (calls it political speech)

Why aren't any of these just ordinary bullying (Coulter) or just art (effigies) or just polemics (Rhodes), or just speech? Because, in my opinion: I wouldn't let my kid do it, and I wouldn't let them do it as an adult either. 

I've even gone so far as to suggest that President George Bush's predilection for giving everyone who works with him nicknames is partially to blame.  Some people actually, really, do not like to be called by nicknames.  They like and want their own name to be used.  What is wrong with wanting that? Why must someone else's desire to not call you by your given name and instead call you something cutesy or dude-like take precedence over what you want?

To me, that is insane and not too sensitive.  Why? Because where in the world do we get that someone else should be able to control what I am called when I know and they know damn well what my name is and who I am.

When Sarah Palin calls Barack Obama a socialist with an intention to portray an image that she hopes voters will dislike, or John McCain calls him Barack the Wealth Spreader intending to get people to dislike Obama's policies, or any of the tens of names they've cooked up? It doesn't matter how many times they try to tell us that this is not negative campaigning. It's plain, cruel, mean-spirited, unnecessary and childish teasing and bullying - of us, the voters, not only if at all Barack Obama.

People have dismissed the use of such language in politics by saying that it is just that: just politics.  And I call that out as lazy and evasive. Why should the desire to win a political race trump the way we are supposed to treat one another? Why should the desire to win a political race make it okay to be mean, to do what we teach our kids not to do? Why should the desire to win a political race make it okay to be a bully?

The answer is: it shouldn't - and it doesn't.  The desire to win does not justify the pursuit of acts and words that we would never sanction our kids to do. And, ultimately, if you can't win without calling someone names, then you don't deserve to win in the first place.

Additional/related links:

To the stupid punks who stole my Obama sign at My Bit of Earth

Prop 8 and sign stealing by Penny for My Thoughts

With help from the media, language is used to defeat a nation by Susan Mullen at XM MLB Chat

UPDATE (11/8/08) From the Indy Star, we learn about the international Bullying Prevention Association:

More than 700 educators and law enforcement from 10 countries were in Indianapolis this week for the International Bullying Prevention Association's annual conference to share research and techniques aimed at ending the aggression.

"Bullying is usually what we call repeated acts or gestures that are used to make fun of, humiliate or intimidate another person," said Clarissa Snapp, director of the Indiana School Safety Specialist Academy and an organizer of the conference at the Sheraton Indianapolis Hotel and Suites at Keystone Crossing on the city's Far Northside.

While bullying can escalate into physical attack, Snapp said the most-used weapons are behaviors that are emotionally damaging, such as eye rolls, taunts or mocking gestures.

 The whole article is worth the read.

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