“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This catchy little chant is one of the first clever idioms we learn as young children. In the world of four-year-old children, it’s a good bit of advice to kids who are learning how to interact with their young peers.
Later on we learn that society is more nuanced than the sticks and stones ditty prepares us for. A teacher or parent tells us, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Strong or persuasive speech and writing can influence people more effectively than violence or forcefulness.
The fact is that both of these idioms have value. It’s helpful to develop mental armor against bullies who assault us with name-calling and insults. It’s also helpful to remember that people who spread harmful statements and rumors can cause great or even irreparable harm and even incite violence.
In the flash of a moment, our mouths or our typing fingers can destroy a friendship or a reputation. A powerful leader’s speech or official decree can spark domestic discord or international war. So, what we say or write can have far-reaching consequences. Even the seemingly “innocent” acts of engaging in gossip, lying, divisive talk, and harsh or course talk can influence others and even unwittingly reveal our own character.
While words can be used by skilled bullies and propagandists to harm, words can also be used compassionately by people who wish to be positive and helpful to others. This observation seems so obvious that we don’t often sit down and contemplate it.
Today we have mass media and the Web to consider. People’s opinions and beliefs can be influenced en masse, instantly. All of us, not only leaders, have the tools of skillful speech at our fingertips or our webcams. Will we use skillful speech for ill or for good?
For those of us who attended journalism and broadcasting classes, the subject of ethical use of words was drilled into us constantly. After beginning work in broadcasting, I quickly realized the power of what I wrote and said on the air. Reporting the news to thousands of listeners at a time is an exercise in ethics and responsibility.
Not only does the reporter need to consider the accuracy of the story, but she or he must think about what facts are included or discarded in the telling of that story. Furthermore, the media worker needs to be truthful in regards to how personal opinions influence the composition of the story and what is included and what is excluded. Does the story advance an agenda?
During one of the days in broadcast journalism class, my instructor asked the students to carefully and honestly consider whether we wanted to be editorializing commentators or if we wanted to be good reporters. Although talk show hosts and news reporters share the same medium, their jobs are vastly different. Commentators are free to slant their messages to please themselves and their employers. Reporters do not have that freedom. The first responsibility is ethical dissemination of facts to the public.
As someone who spent over 30 years in mainstream media, it pains me to read or hear disparaging remarks about my profession. The people I’ve had the honor of working with are honest, honorable, very ethical reporters and news readers. If a story was questionable or was inaccurately sourced, the piece was discarded and never went on the air. Unbiased, accurate reporting is an ironclad rule in mainstream media.
The rules of responsible news reporting are also excellent rules to follow in our private lives, too. How can we expect the public to believe us if we are dishonest and gossipy or use untruthful speech in our private lives? Our unskillful and harmful speech will come back to haunt us and possibly cause public outrage.
Communication with an ethical foundation speaks truthfully, brings about accurate understanding, and centers on appropriate, meaningful topics at appropriate times. It is important not to misstate facts with lies or exaggeration. It is important to examine whether our communication is free of personal opinion unless we state upfront that it is our personal view. It’s good to remember that our beliefs may or may not be the truth.
Skillful speech also takes into consideration whether or not our message is helpful, meaningful, and useful. A good habit to cultivate is to pause before opening our mouth or pressing our fingertips onto the keyboard. Will the words be helpful to people?
I hope these words are helpful and will enable constructive discussion in our lives.