By: Michelle Gunnin
We had all hoped after the election that things would simmer down. Instead, it seems that things have only become more heated. There are protests, social media is blowing up, families and friends are arguing publicly, and everywhere hurtful words are spoken or typed…all in an effort to be heard. It seems everyone is offended at someone. Opinions are running high, and compassion is nearly nonexistent. I tend to want to hide in my house and bury my head rather than venture out into the political war zone.
To me, the most alarming trend in recent days is the total lack of respect we seem to have for one another. Name calling has reached an all-time high. If my children had used some of these words growing up, discipline would have been sharp and swift. Instead, now, we proclaim these things about our fellow citizens as if they are our enemies. The words flow like a river, running unchecked in a tumult which floods and destroys as it rushes by. I believe the relative anonymity of a Facebook post or a blog is part of the cause. It is easy to say cruel and malicious things when you are not sitting face to face with a living human being.
Another issue is the way posts are multiplied at the speed of light. As wonderful as the internet is, there are times when a good old fashioned newspaper would be better than the post-now-fact-check-later musings of our country. In the olden days when you wrote an angry letter, you rarely mailed it. It was written and put aside, and then reread and determined to be too foolish to send. Usually, it found its way to file-13 and was tossed in with a sigh of relief that you didn’t actually mail it. Today, in the heat of the moment, while anger is still running hot, you can push a button, and in an instant, the world can read all of your angst.
All media, social and otherwise, plays to the sensational. Unbiased journalism seems to no longer exist. Inflammatory language is used to catch the eyes and ears of the public, to sell news. As writers, we know how to say things to catch the attention of our readers. It is called the shock factor. We have practiced creating titles, headings, and bullet points that cause people to stop and take note. In the midst of this practice, we have been unaware of the subtle shift from winning readership to manipulating emotions. It is irresponsible of us not to recognize the power our pen wields. We can contribute to the unrest, or the peace, simply by our choice of words. We must recognize that every word we write, even Facebook posts and tweets, reflects on us as writers. I am not suggesting that we forgo writing to influence or to express opinions. I am proposing that we take a step back to make sure that in the process of doing those things, we are being respectful. Here are a few ways to check yourself.
- Are you painting with a broad brush? Do you lump groups of people all together? All liberals, or all conservatives. All black people, or all white people. All Christians, or all Muslims. All millennials, or all baby boomers. When you do so, it dehumanizes them. It is much easier to say hurtful things, even unintentionally, if you haven’t taken the time to know people who are different from you.
- Would you say what you have written to someone in person? If you wouldn’t, you probably need a rewrite. I have been in a room when a discussion was going on and watched words fall silent when the person being talked about appeared. It is awkward, but it tells me that we know right from wrong. So why we will post things like that online without a second thought?
- Would you want your mom to read what you wrote? This may seem silly, but moms are usually the ones who taught us about manners. If you don’t want mom to see it, that means you know it is not appropriate. Maybe you should forward everything to her before you post it…just to be sure. If that suggestion causes the hair on your neck to stand up, it’s time for a rewrite.
- If Jesus (or whomever you follow) was in the room, would you still say what you have written? If you have any form of religious belief or moral code, it is important to consider if the words you write line-up with what you say you believe. If not, you are a hypocrite and rethinking either what you have written or what you believe is in order.
- Can you make your point without inflammatory language? It is not always necessary to use sensational words. In fact, in the current climate, a gentle word choice might be better received. No one ever won over their adversaries while calling them names. Tone down the emotionalism and try some honest, heartfelt kindness.
- Have you put yourself in the shoes of those you disagree with? To be respectful, you have to have empathy. Empathy is conjoining yourself with the plight of another. Empathy gives birth to compassion. If you want to write in an empathetic manner, you must try to understand what those who think differently than you are feeling. Why are they upset? What has happened to them that they feel this way? Conflict is a two-way street, and to navigate it with words, you have to attempt to go in both directions.
- Could you find a compromise that works for all? I can hear you. “I cannot compromise what I believe. It is too important.” Therein lies the struggle, an unwillingness to even attempt to cooperate or collaborate. When you are writing about your beliefs, remember two brick walls will never build a bridge unless someone takes them both apart and restructures the foundation. You have the choice to be an architect with your words.
- How would you feel if someone wrote what you have written about others, about you? When writing about a volatile topic that includes statements about a person or a group of people, consider how you would feel if your name was in the sentence instead of someone else’s – or if someone wrote the same thing about your kids. It is much easier to see the offensive words when they are directed at you. If you would be offended, it calls for a rewrite.
- Is what you wrote going to contribute to the division or the unity? This one is pretty straight forward; a million voices are contributing to the division. That is easy. It is much tougher to stand for your beliefs, while also respecting those who believe the opposite of you. In fact, if you like writing challenges, try getting both sides to agree with you. That’ll keep you busy a while.
- Can you write from an unbiased viewpoint? This is super tough to do because it means replacing the emotionally charged words with more factual ones. You may not actually want to write from an unbiased place. However, if you try to write from that place, it will force you to think differently than you would if you are just blowing off steam. To think differently is never a bad thing for a writer. Even if you go back to your original post, you will do so with open eyes.
It seems that we are in need of some respectful writers to speak sanity into these crazy times we live in. Being respectful isn’t hard, it just takes some intentional thought. Those writers who can show some self-restraint and thoughtful consideration before they push the submit button, are the ones who have the maturity to know the power of the pen. They do not use it flippantly, but with great reverence and therefore, they both give and receive respect.