Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Sticks and Stones...

During the family Easter dinner, the conversation turned to bad language. And how it was never permitted in our home. The memory of the taste of Fels Naptha soap one time was enough to scare some people into a life of proper speaking. (For those who observed the literal mouth cleansing, the threat alone was enough.) Given that the holiday was celebrated with the Georgia branch of the family, there were many more memories of saying "Yes, sir." and "Yes, ma'am," than our Yankee side experienced--though "sir" and "ma'am" were preferred forms of address to be sure.

Bad language, disrespectful language and certainly anything racist was met with swift and memorable punishment. Bad words (mostly referring to bodily functions) were just that, bad words. Hoarded and whispered among children, the risk of saying them within earshot of an adult--any adult--were just too great. It wasn't just the words, there was--actually in my lifetime--a time when certain subjects were still taboo, largely because they were disrespectful, unkind or hateful.

Now, it's wonderful that we are a more open culture. There was a time when things like cancer were taboo subjects because people were scared of them, out of ignorance of course. We should talk openly and honestly about the things that we care about and that are important to us. Children should be encouraged not to keep secrets but rather to have open dialogue with the parents and caregivers in their lives.

Yet, when something like the current Don Imus fiasco happens, in which he used racial epithets to talk about the Rutgers basketball team, we are reminded of how hurtful and destructive speech can be. Imus a very wealthy man who has made his money pandering to the hatreds of his audience, finally went too far. But given that his comments were only a more extreme example of his daily screed, what does it say about our culture that there is a segment of the population--a large and profitable one--that confuses hostility and anger with humor.

More importantly, and most relevant for this particular blog, what does it model for our kids? If we as a culture value wealth and fame and are willing to condone any means to get it, then are we not complicit in teaching this kind of behavior? If companies like CBS, MSNBC and Westwood One who distribute this program only pull the plug (with a mild two-week suspension that won't have a signfiicant impact on revenue) when the public outrage is too great, are they not also supporting this behavior? Of course they are. It largely makes them a great deal of money, and companies only change when they are forced to. Controversy sells, and so we are teaching our children to be controversial irregardless of substance. Is that what we really want?

So I ask, again, what about the kids? The clear lesson they are learning is that you get away with what you can get away with until you can't get away with it any more. You get a slap on the wrist and then go right back to doing what you did before. Al Sharpton comes in voices his special brand of outrage, makes a lot of noise and makes quasi-entertaining media, gets a great deal of bonus attention and will likely stage an event with a newly chastened Imus--and then it will be business as usual. There is nothing you can do about that other than turn it all off.

I realize that this sounds somewhat cynical, but we've seen it play out too often in our culture. Mel Gibson and Jason Wahler are just two celebrities whose anger and frustration have been expressed in hate speech, for which they get more attention--including, unfortunately, here, and for which there are no real long-term consequences. As a culture we have become so desensitized from the anger and hurtful speech that we collectively shrug our (metaphoric) shoulders and go on.

Nonetheless, this is the reality of our culture. And as parents and caregivers we may have smaller spheres of influence, but they are the important ones for the kids in our lives. We can't change the culture, but we can demand that the kids in our lives be respectful and avoid both using and listening to this kind of behavior. Since we can't change what's out there, it is our obligation to provide a context for it and communicate our values. And there need to be consequences for actions that are deemed inappropriate. Enforced ingestion on laundry soap may not be an option today, but the deterrents need to be as memorable and effective for changing behavior. Would it be so bad if 30 years from now kids were talking about how they learned to be positive forces in the culture--and, as we did, have a sense of humor about that and the ways in which we learned in no uncertain terms what was acceptable behavior?

This need not all be dire and bleak, either. The wonderful musical, Avenue Q pokes fun at our natural tendencies to indulge in stereotypes. The song Everyone's a Little Bit Racist is perhaps one of the most honest evocations of our all-too-human proclivities, and they get away with it because it's puppets doing the singing. However, the song also asks us to examine the damage that we can potentially do if we indulge these negative impulses. Because it asks us to poke fun at ourselves and overcome our own negative behaviors, that is funny.

Kids can be really awful to one another, particularly with name calling. Many kids subjected to this painful experience were told to counter with, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me." That's a neat response and a way to show the name caller their words don't have the power they think they do. Think about it, though: when you were called names, did that phrase ever really work? It might have been a Band-Aid, but the hurt was real. In all the conversations I've had with kids and parents over the years about this, it does hurt. And the hurt lingers for years.

So as you may be tempted laugh at (or, worse, ignore) people who are getting richer by the day making a career out of schoolyard name-calling, ask yourself: What in the world is really fun about that and why on earth would I subject my children to that or encourage them to think that willfully and consciously hurting other people is entertainment?

- C. Byrne

Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg from Avenue Q