Words Can Be Lethal


This week I would like to discuss the issue of civility. We are clearly a nation out of control. Basic respect for people is sadly lacking. The visual and print media have lost their focus, ...

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This week I would like to discuss the issue of civility. We are clearly a nation out of control. Basic respect for people is sadly lacking. The visual and print media have lost their focus, and quite candidly, their integrity. The truth is the truth. However, those reporting it spin it in such a way that it is often unrecognizable. There is a problem. Integrity and honesty used to account for something.

It is profoundly troubling, when you read an article or watch a news segment and you begin to question its authenticity. Are the facts, genuinely the facts, or is it someone s interpretation or someone else s social and/or political agenda?

Freedom of speech is a valued civil right in our country, guaranteed by our Constitution. People should feel free to express whatever viewpoint they hold. However, attacking and defaming the character and integrity of another whose viewpoint you disagree with is unconscionable. That kind of journalism and news reporting used to be rare. Unfortunately, it is becoming too commonplace.

We wonder why our young people are so out of control in this regard. Look at their role models. Look at the television they watch, the news programs and the commentators that shape their thinking. Well thought out disagreements on every issue is healthy. Using one s disagreement with a political or social issue as a steppingstone for character assassination is scandalous.

The recent display in Washington, DC on the part of some of our elected officials who oppose healthcare reform, bordered on embarrassing. At a teenage hockey game that was tied, a parent in the stands became very belligerent and crude. He started cursing at the game official and getting physically aggressive with other spectators, who did not appreciate his vulgar and crude language. He became so threatening the police had to be called. He was arrested. He was a well educated, successful businessman and father of four, but he was out of control. After he was arrested, he still did not understand that his behavior was inappropriate. That lack of insight is very troubling and seems to be running rampant in our larger community among adults.

Every weekend in many of our local social establishments, the police are called because patrons get involved in physical altercations that are provoked by inappropriate comments and behavior. This circumstance recently came up in one of my social science college classes. The consensus among the students is that this kind of behavior is part of their social landscape, and that for the most part, they expect it to happen.

This lack of civility is becoming epidemic at school board meetings, community forums, town meetings and other gatherings open to the public. As soon as something controversial is presented or someone presents a differing viewpoint or minority position, people become defensive and at times overly aggressive. Basic active listening skills seem to get buried in people s hostility.

This kind of social behavior must be confronted and deemed unacceptable. We have become too tolerant and complacent when it comes to people s inappropriate social behavior. Our children become what they see. If there is a lack of civility in our large community, it is probably because that is what is being reflected by some of the adults in our midst.

Many of the social networks that our children participate in have become infected with this nastiness and hate. There are countless stories of young people being emotionally devastated by what their peers are posting on these websites. The immaturity and poor judgment being exercised here is disturbing.

As adults, we no longer can sit in silence and not address these concerns. As parents, we need to be involved in what social networking sites are children are involved with. For middle school and high school students, there should be parameters that hold our children accountable for what they say and do in these venues. We should also advocate for greater controls established by the sites themselves to protect the well-being of young people who are participating in these sites.

Whatever oversights are put in place must be enforced and monitored on a consistent basis. To pay lip service to oversights that are not enforced is an exercise in futility. The inconsistency only gives a mixed message to our children.

Do we create and support an environment that cultivates respect for diversity and tolerance for differences of opinion? Do we confront aggressively negative behavior in all its forms? Do we hold students and parents accountable for their lack of civility? Hate and disrespect are learned behaviors. We must take a zero-tolerance position in this regard.

AL was a transfer student for the eighth grade in a school where I was once a Principal. As a rule, we did not normally accept eighth-grade transfer students. Her family had just moved into the community. She had been in Catholic school her whole life. We were the school closest to her. She was bright, engaging and an above average student. We made an exception and welcomed her.

By November, she was complaining of a whole host of aches and pains, and they were getting worse. Her parents took her to a variety of specialists. They found nothing, and ultimately decided to hospitalize her for further tests.

After weeks of tests and hospitalization, one afternoon while her mother was visiting her, she broke down and sobbed. She expressed what was bothering her. She was in school for only a month and was in the girls bathroom in a stall. She overheard a group of girls talking. They didn t realize she was there. They started talking about her. They accused her of being a flirt and of sleeping around. She was devastated and emotionally destroyed. She thought these girls were her friends. Behind her back, they were spreading all kinds of gossip and rumors.

AL couldn t take it. When I got wind of this, I assured her that we held her in high esteem and did not listen to the gossip. I met with girls who were responsible for the gossip. They were good young women. They never meant to hurt anyone. The bottom line, they were jealous of AL because all the popular boys were flirting with her and talking about her.

Once confronted the girls involved were very remorseful and apologetic. They learned a very powerful lesson that day. Words can be lethal, especially when they are not the truth!