If You Can’t Say Something Nice…

We don’t always have to speak our minds, do we?

Image from Pexels

In our age of social connectedness, of ability to speak instantly, with few, if any, filters to mitigate what is said, it seems like there’s a daily barrage of outrage. There’s outrage at what someone says initially, or what someone says in response to a post or tweet or controversial act. Frankly, it’s exhausting. And ultimately, continual outrage diminishes the ability to determine when words or actions truly warrant that response.

It’s like the boy who cried “wolf.” If we’re always angry at someone or something, how will we register anything more meaningful when something truly egregious occurs? When people are always angry, that becomes their set point, and they’re categorized as such. And often discounted.

All words and actions are not equal. Some are merely irritating or naive or immature, while others rise to a level of malevolence that demands a response.

Of course, we believe we have the right to say whatever we want. The truth is, in the United States, the government may not prohibit speech (there are a few important exceptions even here) but private companies can set their own standards and parameters. Sometimes in those settings, speaking out can get a person canceled or banned from a platform. But in general, we are free to speak, and overall, I think that’s a good thing. More freedom is better than less.

But even if we have the right to say something….does that make it right to say it? That’s a subjective filter, and must be, I understand that. There’s no way my concept of what is “right” to say will align with everyone else’s, and vice versa.

We talk of the benefits of diversity of thought, of cultures, of points of view. Even so, there’s value in having some common standards, common decency. But no standard will ever be universal.

But surely we can do better, collectively? What if the standard is to be kinder, less judgmental? Softer. With all the actual wrongs in the world to confront, surely rhetoric can move down on the priority list?

I know words matter, and what is said in the public square influences. I’m not suggesting that we ignore the worst of inflammatory speech. But surely we don’t have to be in a constant state of rebuttal? Frankly, I think a lot of people look for opportunities to react. I think there’s too much knee-jerk reaction on all sides.

And here’s another reason to question the exchanges that blow up and start trending: who benefits? Sometimes I think people make extreme statements to stir the pot, to get their names out there, to generate buzz. As the old saying goes, any publicity is better than no publicity. How often does someone take an extreme position on social media, and suddenly their name and statement are on everyone’s lips? What is the real achievement? That an opinion is heard and honestly assessed, or that a tweet is retweeted? When the talking heads and trend-setters are agitating, how does that help? Does it really change us for the better? Ever?

I’m not being political when I say I think the world could use a lot more kindness and tolerance. We talk, collectively, about not being judgmental, about accepting others, we say “you do you.” The opposite of this attitude is anger and vindictiveness. I see people on all sides of political thought and backgrounds using cancel culture, contempt, and vilifying language to lash out at anyone they disagree with. Frankly, I don’t think that does anything but drive people farther apart, and that behavior diminishes the seriousness of critical issues.

There’s a reason social media is often seen as toxic. I sometimes read the comment threads on posts that create controversy. Often the initial post seems innocent enough. Maybe foolish or ill-judged, but not of criminal or evil intent. But total strangers go into screed mode and vent opinions about situations they can’t possibly judge fairly or accurately. And how does that help? Where did we get the idea that it’s our responsibility or business to sound off on someone else’s life or point of view?

To be sure, I sometimes read posts or hear opinions that make me shake my head. There are some strange people out there, and I don’t always like or agree with the statements that flow through my Facebook page, Twitter feed, or whatever social networks I’m part of.

I’m not talking here about the very natural and appropriate right to defend self or loved ones. Although the best course may be to ignore and let unfair and unfounded attacks go unanswered, it’s sometimes necessary to fight fire with fire, and each of us has to determine when a battle is worth engaging.

~ I believe we have the right to voice our opinions without being vilified. I also believe we should be thoughtful about how we voice opinions. You can be abrasive, or not abrasive, and still communicate. But the tone…how you say what you say…can make all the difference in how your words are received. What is the objective? To say something that contributes in a meaningful way, or to stir the pot and add to anger?

~ I believe we’re always right to look out for the welfare of the vulnerable and helpless in our midst. If we see or hear or read something that indicates someone is being abused or harmed, we should stand up, in every way possible.

~ When a public figure speaks out, by default they invite comment, and if someone is already in the public arena, they surely know they’re opening the door to anyone and everyone who chooses to engage. But even in that context, I don’t think piling on is always helpful. Honestly, the worst thing that can happen to a public figure is silence. Crickets. How about using the tool of ignoring someone’s harsh or thoughtless statement to minimize its impact? I’m not in favor of “canceling” anyone, but that doesn’t mean we have to engage with posts or tweets that are calculated to be offensive.

~For the rest of us…can’t we live and let live? I wish we could return to the old adage of not saying anything if we can’t say something good. That standard works whether we initiate a conversation or respond to someone else.

Some would say that’s just turning a blind eye. But I’m not advocating that. I do believe we should speak up in the face of wrongdoing. I don’t believe disagreeing with someone is the same as calling out wrongdoing.

Ultimately, I don’t think it’s wrong to disagree; in fact I believe that’s inevitable, part of being human. But that’s not really what I’m getting at here. I’m talking more about how we disagree. I think it’s time we return to a level of civility, to a level of respect and a willingness to agree to disagree. We need to remember: it’s ok to have different opinions. How could we not see the world differently, 7.8 billion of us each experiencing reality through our unique lives and eyes?

It’s never going to be perfect, we’re never going to satisfy everyone, whether we’re talking about behavior on social media or in real life. But I don’t think we’re moving in the right direction. It feels like we’re losing ground rather than gaining…like we’re more polarized than ever. That’s not something I think we should continue to ignore.

I’m not suggesting we all hold hands and sing. I’m not that naive.

I am suggesting that we take personal responsibility for what we’re adding to the public discourse. And a side note here…if you believe something you say or text to someone else is private…well, is anything really assured of remaining private now? With screenshots and sharing and digital words living forever, it’s a mistake to think anything you put on any screen is private.

So are we making life better, or worse?

~I believe there are ways to take a stand and do so from a positive position.

~I believe that the voices that speak constructively are stronger than voices that tear down.

~I believe we can make a difference, regardless of our social standing, our media presence, or our net worth. It’s a cliche to say it, but that doesn’t make it less true.

~I believe change begins with each one of us being determined to make a difference in the way we interact, and the example we set.

I challenge you to be the change you want to see, to find a way to frame your thoughts from a positive point of view, and approach differences with respect and kindness. If you truly believe that someone is in the wrong, consider how you could be most effective in changing their perspective. Most people don’t respond well to blunt force. That said, this isn’t a call to avoid confrontation. Rather, it’s a call to consider what the goal of communication really is, and how to best share your views and experiences.

I challenge you to have a goal for what you say or post to your online community when you have something significant to communicate. What’s your call to action? Are you venting just to vent? That’s sometimes helpful. But if you’re attacking someone or something, what’s the real message? What are you trying to accomplish? Even if you feel strongly about something, is there a positive way to frame your opinion? Can you find something helpful or useful or hopeful to say?

It’s easy to be a critic, to find fault, tear down. It’s easy to judge what someone else has said, done, or failed at doing. It’s easy to sit back and second guess. But how can you help? How can you make a difficult situation better? That’s the question I’d like to see shape posts and interactions.

The point is, there’s already enough division and angst and negativity in the world. What can you say that is healing, even in the smallest of ways? How can you be a different voice? That’s what I’m asking myself, challenging myself to consider.

The spitting back and forth on Twitter, etc., doesn’t really accomplish anything, does it? Did it ever?



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