I cannot recall a time when I was unaware of the power of words. Living with my mother and brother in her parents' home, with a young uncle, an aunt and an aunt by marriage, at the end of World War II, offered a primer in the use of language to convey hurt, worry, anger, resentment and fear. A primer in the use of language to cajole, ingratiate, belittle, manipulate, and, conversely and thankfully, occasionally to soothe, comfort, console, and reassure. Unfortunately, too much of the former, too little of the latter.
Every male of fighting age in our extended family was enlisted and many engaged in combat duty. Most of the families in Milwaukee's blue collar neighborhoods, probably throughout the country, were in the same boat, coping with the same stress levels, with the same insufficient training and experience to deal with it.
So I learned quickly to pay attention to tone of voice, to sense when emotions were high and arguments were likely to escalate. I came to recognize the words and phrases that could trigger a volley of insults and accusations, name-calling and laying blame..you never, you always, you need to, why can't you...etc., etc. I waited for apologies that never came. I remember the clenching of my jaw, the twisting in my stomach, the tears I struggled to hide. I remember wondering how someone could be so sure of what someone else really meant. But most of all, I remember the bewilderment I felt when people whom I believed loved each other and needed each other's protection could be so deliberately hurtful. I remember feeling very unsafe.
Those years were the impetus for my lifelong interest in communication - what constitutes effective communication? What forces impede communication? What limits our ability to discuss differences? How much responsibility do I own for how you hear me? How much responsibility do you own for how I hear you? Each answer leading to more questions.
I now look back on those early years with some understanding and compassion. People were so fearful, so unprepared. We lived in isolated neighborhoods, with limited information trickling in via newspapers, news reels, the radio. We didn't know what we didn't know. Our perceptions were shaped by rigid cultural norms, strong religious influences and carefully crafted political propaganda. Our behaviors by history and habit. Yet, somehow we managed, eventually, to move forward, certainly with some scars, but together.
These past months, however, I find myself grinding my teeth at night, frequently feeling my stomach in knots, fighting back tears of frustration, cursing at the TV, shaking my head in disbelief at what I see and hear in the news, in threads of conversations and shares on Facebook. Language to convey hurt, worry, outrage, resentment and fear. Language to cajole, ingratiate, humiliate, threaten, belittle, manipulate. Language designed to distort, distract, deny. Perceptions shaped by rigid cultural norms, strong religious influences and carefully crafted political propaganda. Our behaviors defended by history and habit. Emotion and belief superseding thinking and reason. Negotiation and compromise becoming dirty words. And the result - more divisiveness, a rise in bullying and hate crimes, cynicism and distrust. Lying called fake news. Threats called bluffing. All exacerbated by our sheer numbers, the speed with which information - true, false or mixed - can be spread to a population too often unable or unwilling to sort it out.
What's a person to do? Well, this is what this person is doing, for what it's worth. Because I have no idea if we, as a country, will weather this toxicity, but I suspect I won't unless I -
- limit my time on Facebook and with the news,
- confine my energy and attention to a few FB sites I trust, preferably those with moderators who help to insure a modicum of civility,
- subscribe to Snopes daily debrief to help sort the wheat from the chaff,
- insert a question or comment where I think it might make a difference, but only where it might,
- call and write my Congressmen to voice my opinions and concerns,
- monitor my own language, particularly when I'm angry or afraid,
- make sure I find a way to laugh in the morning and record gratitudes before I go to bed,
- spend some enjoyable time with John and connect with a friend every day,
- learn more about how to discuss issues more effectively across the chasms of religious and political differences, and
- populate my world with others who want to help bridge these chasms rather than widen them.
For, what else is a person to do?