EDITORIAL: The war of words

by Jan 5, 2018OPINIONS0 comments





I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For, so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.

I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For who has sight so keen and strong,
That it can follow the flight of song?

Long, long afterward, in an oak
I found the arrow, still unbroke;
And the song, from beginning to end,
I found again in the heart of a friend.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oct. 16, 1845

Over the past two years, we have certainly had our share of controversy and harsh words in the community. Passionate people have been vocal about their passions throughout the year 2017.

In 1994, Robert Evans wrote, “There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each differently.”

We look at the world based on our beliefs, experiences, and personal situations. As we have discussed before, the truth, as each of us sees it, is usually based on our interpretation of events, individually. Unless you are standing in my shoes, you cannot see what I see and vice versa. If I think you are wrong, it is generally because I have seen a situation or have a different interest than you.

Knowledge is power and individuals are reluctant to give up any power, which makes us more likely to form opinions based on partial or tainted information, and getting to a place of agreement is even more challenging.

When we are trying to convince people of our position on a situation, we are selling a story. When we sell a story, we are prone to share all the points that make our position more attractive to the people who we are trying to convince. We will also likely leave out all points that might make people look at our position negatively. So, we have the potential for a story or situation to be seen and shared by different people, each having different, likely opposing, opinions or positions.

Actions have consequences, including voicing of a position. Sometimes, we voice a general opinion, sometimes coming in the form of a criticism. Sometimes, our criticism is directed at an action or situation; other times our criticism is directed at an individual. We judge people based on our assessment of their actions, or the perception of their actions based on their viewpoints.

Our relationships are complex and, therefore, our positions on situations are also complex. Anger, from an action decades ago that may have impacted an ancestor, relative or friend, may impact the decisions we make today. History is filled with famous feuds between individuals, entire families, and even entire nations, based on perceived negative actions toward each other. Generations of hate end up influencing the actions of people and impacting present and future livelihoods and relationships. Over time, these feuds get so convoluted that parties may have violent confrontations and not remember what the causal action was or is.

Harsh or hateful words are like an arrow, sharp and piercing. To those who are already predisposed to negative thoughts about us, a hard word will ignite a spirit of aggression or retaliation. It is human nature to gossip, and because we know that knowledge is power, we share when we think the words will benefit us. Some are also prone to embellishment, taking creative license with the truth (or their truth) to make a story more appealing or believable.

We see hateful words and gossip in our personal relationships, courtrooms, politics, and even in the writing of some journalists. The desire to convince others of our opinions is so strong that it is difficult to find unbiased and impartial information. When we speak words of hate or share stories giving only one side or position, we don’t know where or how many people will be affected, even though we may have only one target in mind when we shoot that arrow.

We may also choose to speak to each other with courtesy and honesty, as Longfellow suggested with the metaphor of song, making sure that we provide our argument in support of our position while respecting the opposing view. The problem with longstanding disagreements is that hatred of a position may easily turn into hatred of a person or people holding that position.

There used to be an axiom in customer service; you never win an argument with a customer. If you are “in the wrong” and refuse to acknowledge it, you will lose the customer. If you are “in the right”, you may prove it to the customer, but in the process, you will lose the customer, because you have insulted and belittled the customer by disproving his position. And, in losing the customer, you lose the argument.

Consider the words written in the book of James taken from the Holy Bible. In the third chapter, verses 1-12, the writer talks about the power of the tongue. He says, “When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.  Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.  The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body…Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.”

The writer expresses that this should not be; that our speech should not expose a double mind, and specifically a negative or evil mind.

When seeking the truth, not my truth or your truth, it is important to remember that anyone may be biased. When a person comes to me and makes an accusation against someone who I have longstanding friendship, my position may immediately be to question what I am hearing. By the same token, if I hear good things about someone of who I have a bad opinion, I will have an immediate position about those allegations. In both cases, the only immediate evidence I have is the word of the person making the allegation. For some, that is enough to make a judgement.

As we begin 2018, let’s commit to being kinder to each other. I doubt that we will ever end the war of words in our community or in the nation. It is far too important to us to be “right” and the only way we can be legitimized is through using our words to sell our respective positions. But, maybe, we can learn again to respect each other in the battle, to sing songs instead of shooting arrows.