Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Looney Leftie or Right Wing Nut?

Photo of Don Imus and Al Sharpton speaking on Sharpton's radio show courtesy of Freep.com

Contemporary American Race Theatre continues as I mentioned in a previous post, starring Don Imus and his "nappy headed hos" comment. This incident has taken on seemingly epic proportions in the popular media. I cannot turn on the TV or the radio without hearing more and more about what he said and all the efforts he's made to try and repair the damage. This is one of those moments in American life that offers the opportunity for spiritual maturation and the advancement of society, if we are willing to take it. You could say that Imus' comments were the Hurricane Katrina of public discourse regarding race and gender, exposing profound limitations in our collective consciousness of the oneness of humanity. While the statements in question are being widely discussed as being about racism and sexism (which they are), I believe this whole incident demands deep reflection on the quality of public discourse in our society in general and on the spiritual and social significance of the language we chose to use.

One example of this is the tendency toward "name calling" when discussing the challenging issues of the day, the hot topics of the so called "culture wars". For instance, it is quite common for me to hear people, especially in the media, arts, and academy refer to each other as members of the "looney left" or as "right wing nuts" or simply use the words "conservative" and "liberal" as perjorative terms. It always disappoints me when a person who is making an otherwise intelligent and reasoned argument (even if I disagree with it) begins name calling. I never see how this behavior strengthens the argument being made or illuminates the topic of discussion. The conclusion that I have reached is that the people who do this are engaged in bullying, trying to either intimidate those they disagree with, or to intimidate those who might be swayed to agree with their opponents. Basically, if you don't share their views they're going to call you names. The other goal of this kind of behavior is to invalidate what is being said by invalidating the speaker. If someone is a ________ then whatever he or she says is not to be listened to. Many of those who play the name calling card claim that even if they do it, they don't do it as badly or frequently as other people. I've yet to find evidence that supports this claim.

Even those who manage to avoid name calling often communicate with and about each other in ways that are self-righteous, hostile and alienating. Though from time to time, some figure in the popular culture, or a politician or intellectual will publicly bemoan the "lack of civility" in our society, it appears to me that as Americans we are at best ambivalent about how we should speak to and about each other, especially when it involves issues that evoke strong emotions in us. Baha'u'llah offers this commentary on the power of words:

"The Great Being saith: Human utterance is an essence which aspireth to exert its influence and needeth moderation. As to its influence, this is conditional upon refinement which in turn is dependent upon hearts which are detached and pure. As to its moderation, this hath to be combined with tact and wisdom as prescribed in the Holy Scriptures and Tablets. "Every word is endowed with a spirit, therefore the speaker or expounder should carefully deliver his words at the appropriate time and place, for the impression which each word maketh is clearly evident and perceptible. The Great Being saith: One word may be likened unto fire, another unto light, and the influence which both exert is manifest in the world. Therefore an enlightened man of wisdom should primarily speak with words as mild as milk, that the children of men may be nurtured and edified thereby and may attain the ultimate goal of human existence which is the station of true understanding and nobility. And likewise He saith: One word is like unto springtime causing the tender saplings of the rose-garden of knowledge to become verdant and flourishing, while another word is even as a deadly poison." (Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 172)

The Universal House of Justice offers further commentary on this powerful phenomenon:

"From a Bahá'í point of view, the exercise of freedom of speech must necessarily be disciplined by a profound appreciation of both the positive and negative dimensions of freedom, on the one hand, and of speech, on the other."..."We return to the phenomenal characteristics of speech. Content, volume, style, tact, wisdom, timeliness are among the critical factors in determining the effects of speech for good or evil. Consequently, the friends need ever to be conscious of the significance of this activity which so distinguishes human beings from other forms of life, and they must exercise it judiciously. Their efforts at such discipline will give birth to an etiquette of expression worthy of the approaching maturity of the human race." (The Universal House of Justice, 1988 Dec 29, Individual Rights and Freedoms, pp. 7-9)

These statements and similar ones that I have studied in the Baha'i Writings suggest to me that being mindful of the way that I speak to and about my fellow human beings is not simply a matter of political correctness, but reflects a consciousness of the reality of the soul and the impact of language on both the soul and the social order. Systematically promoting such a consciousness throughout American society would be the most useful response to this latest episode of less than thoughtful speech.

What say you reader?