There is a saying in Jewish tradition that “A person’s tongue is more powerful than his sword. A sword can only kill someone who is nearby; a tongue can cause the death of someone who is far away.”
Two items appeared in my e-mail earlier this week that reminded me of the power our words have. CSU, Bakersfield President Horace Mitchell sent a campus-wide memo affirming freedom of expression as a first amendment right. He rightly avowed that an important part of belonging to a university community is engaging with points of view different from one’s own, even when those ideas make one uncomfortable. In my home discipline of religious studies, we call this skill critical and empathetic understanding – the ability to understand and appreciate others’ worldviews. It involves a willingness to learn from others and to acknowledge the standpoint of one’s own perspective. Freedom of speech is a first amendment right, and it is critical to a democratic citizenry. Preparing all university students for this awesome responsibility is at the core of Arts and Humanities. One reason we cultivate critical thinking and oral communication skills in the general education curriculum and in all of our majors is to promote a reasoned and robust exchange of ideas.
The second item in my e-mail was a link to a two-page spread in The New York Times titled “The 282 People, Places and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted on Twitter: A Complete List.” You don’t need to read The New York Times, or look only at Donald Trump, to be dismayed at the commonness of mean-spirited attacks that supposedly pass for objective reporting or the exchange of ideas. Truthfully, way too many of the conversations in my Facebook feed these days are one-sided diatribes. When we engage in character assassination rather than thoughtful discussion (or reasonable silence) whom does this serve? If we are to err in our words, let’s err on the side of generosity.
Avoiding gossip and practicing right speech are important topics in both Judaism and Buddhism, and I’ve heard the following evocative analogy in both traditions. Gossip is like a feather pillow sliced open and thrown to the wind. You can’t take it back, and it causes a mess!
It’s easy to contribute to the gossip, to make snide remarks about a classmate, a co-worker, or a colleague. Un-noble speech seems so in vogue at the moment – the more outrageous the statement, the more airtime it seems to receive. In its stead, we’ve started a hashtag #AHKindWordsMatter. I extend an invitation to practice the principle of generosity, beginning with 140 characters.
Dr. Robert Frakes
Dean of the School of Arts & Humanities