Stay Tuned/Everyones Overcooking Their Words

From Eccentric Flower


stay tuned

Everyone's Overcooking Their Words
29 March 1998

It's been unseasonably warm for the last two days up here in Boston; they were the hottest recorded temperatures for those days of the year since the 1940's. Eighty-degree weather in March, even for an oddly mild winter, is unusual.

I suppose if I wanted to do the trendy thing I could blame it on El Niño or greenhouse gases. I modestly propose that there may be a simpler cause: all the overheated words people have been firing into the atmosphere lately.

I am not the first person to comment publicly that, collectively, our standard of public discussion is growing nastier. Nor is this the first time I've said it. Nonetheless it bears repeating: People are getting ruder and meaner.

Usually when I say this, I'm referring to nastiness in actions, not words - I'm usually talking about road rage or something like that. Today I'm more interested in words - the increasing vehemence of public debate, and also the kind of discussion that goes on in private, in people's homes. All of these things are overheated. All of them are symptoms of the same problem. All of them are dangerous.

The problem with nastiness in actions is that, first off, it can set up a cycle of increasing physical peril, like driver aggression in Boston: "Well, I figure he's going to cut me off the first chance he gets, just because he can, so I'm going to speed up and cut him off instead." Second, it gives people mistaken ideas about public safety. Do we really want to be a nation of people who step out their front doors assuming that everyone else we meet is potentially hostile? In most urban areas, we're there already.

As for nastiness in public debate, the issue here is that we're steadily forgetting - or avoiding - the standards of social niceties which allowed us to discuss hard topics safely. Those politenesses were there for a reason. Now battle lines are drawn for even the most petty of political decisions, Congress has become even more inefficient due to all the infighting, and the few people who do understand the virtues of politesse are increasingly reluctant to get involved in the issues at all.

When you can't debate anything without having a war, gradually you either gear up for war all the time - we'll call that the Newt approach - or you just stop debating. Neither is very promising.

Finally, the problem with nasty rhetoric in private is that other people may take you at face value. I recognize that you may not care how aggressive your peers think you are - in fact, I recognize that in our business culture, encouraging our young salestypes to go out and "destroy the opposition," aggressiveness is sadly career-enhancing. But do you really want your spouse thinking you're utterly ruthless?

What about your kids?

Children are prone to inflated rhetoric anyway. A child isn't good yet at ranking highs and lows on a relative scale. All crises are the worst thing that ever happened; all joyous events are the best ever. The only way to get a sense of proportion is to have a lot of events in the past, all behind you, and kids don't have that history yet.

Kids routinely say, "I hate her!" when they mean "I'm unhappy with her today," and "I want to die!" when they mean, "I'd like to go hide in my room and not talk to anybody for a while."

It's the parents' responsibility to deflate the rhetoric, to say, "Oh, you don't really mean that; don't say that." Otherwise the child isn't going to be sure how seriously to take her own words, let alone those of her peers or her parents.

What happens when the parents don't do that? What if the parents talk the same way the kid does? As a nation, that's exactly what we have begun to do. And not in much more sophisticated language, either.

What are the consequences?

I wasn't in Arkansas on the twenty-fourth. I am not likely to go there in the next few days and meet the families involved. I am in Boston, a very remote observer. ([2007:] If this reference is unclear to you, please see the Backstory.)

Nonetheless, from this remote point of view, I will offer a few comments: This, for once, is not a case of needing gun control or gun education. This is not a case of leaving the barn door unlocked. Furthermore I'm getting tired of hearing these Southern jokes, so knock it off.

These children grew up with hunters. Every hunter I ever grew up around - and I grew up around a lot of them - was exceedingly cautious about teaching the kids gun safety at a tender age. When you have rifles in the house, you know the kids are going to get them eventually. Even if you lock them up. Even if you hide the bullets. Best you can do is take the mystique of the forbidden away early on; teach them how not to hurt themselves and why the guns aren't toys. I'm not saying there aren't exceptions, but in general, children of hunters are some of the most responsible people about guns I know.

(In the South, the article of faith is that when children are involved in accidental gun deaths, it's always in the households where the parents kept the gun a secret from the children, a big mystery, hidden away. It was always the ex-policeman with the handgun under the pillow that the kid found, not the hunter with the rifle in the tall cabinet.)

These children knew their way around a rifle. Their actions showed every indication of careful premeditation - the van, the ammo, the plan - this was not an opportunistic event, do you understand me? The guns were taken from a locked house - the kids broke in. No, for once, I refuse to scream gun control. The fault here lies elsewhere.

Did their parents raise them right? I dunno. I'm sure we'll hear in great detail about every single thing that went wrong with their toilet training over the next few weeks. I'm not after the parents either. Not this time.

I'm not fond of the "I blame society" argument - it's generally a cop-out, and it leads to things like hysteria against heavy metal records and role-playing games (remember "Mazes and Monsters"?) when normally the person who got into trouble was pretty mixed up to begin with. Culture can contribute to the problem, but only if the seed has already been sown.

But turn that on its head. If someone already is warped enough that his own value system is unreliable, the culture may be the only check valve he has - a set of "normal" values to compare to his own and say, hey, I'm out of bounds here. And when the culture does not provide this last measure of sanity ... it's like driving a car without an emergency brake. You can get away with it if the rest of the car is working properly, but what if it's not?

I don't think our culture is providing that emergency brake anymore. I will accept arguments that it's not the responsibility of the culture to do so; I myself happen to think that it is.

News from my daily paper seems to imply that the younger child - the one whose grandfather owned the guns, and by all accounts a nice kid - is now thought to have been under the influence of the older child, whom he met on a school bus.

Judging from the remarks, this older kid - something of an outsider to the community - was way into the inflated-rhetoric thing. As far as I'm concerned, wanting retribution which is far out of proportion to the perceived slight is a definite symptom.

Was the child maladjusted? Probably, and we could argue all day about how he got maladjusted in the first place.

But maybe if he hadn't spent his thirteen years on this earth listening to adults and the television say "hate" and "kill" and "pillage" and "burn" over and over, he would have enough perspective to know that, no matter how horrible the childhood altercation they were getting revenge for might have seemed to him - and peer abuse is a nasty thing when you're a kid - that getting out the rifles was not the correct answer.

No emergency brake. Could his adult supervision have provided this emergency brake? Possibly - but children are notorious for being poker-faced around adults. The culture is the final line of defense. That line of defense is steadily eroding.

This extends to adults too. You have to be somewhat nuts to start shooting your boss and co-workers in a fit of disillusionment, like the lottery worker in Vermont recently. But you'll have to look further and further to find cultural models which confirm exactly how nutty you are. If your own sanity checks aren't working, increasingly there are no other places to turn.

And I blame this mostly on overheated words.

Just a theory. You can call me crazy if you like, I'm used to it.

My condolences to the families in Jonesboro.

Other Business

This column had little or nothing to do with advertising, so here are two brief items from this week to appease those who need their fix.

I suppose by rights I should dislike the latest series of Buick Regal ads just because they use "Jessica," one of my favorite pieces of music, as their underpinning. Truth is, the song is so good that not even an ad can spoil it. I find it much more interesting that these commercials actually defend the idea of living your life in too much of a hurry, as if it's a positive thing. I've seen plenty of ads which take the position of "We know you don't have enough time to sit back and enjoy anything, so let us help," but these are some of the only ones I've seen which seem to be saying, "Everything goes by too fast - isn't this fun?"

I don't think that's a good sign.

I was watching an ad for some Carnation baby formula - I don't remember the exact product name - and some fine print appeared on the bottom of the screen. I always read the fine print, so I focused in and to my surprise it said:

Breast milk is better. Ask your doctor.

As someone who has argued vehemently in the past against selling artificial baby formulas to women who don't need them, you can imagine my delight at seeing this little disclaimer. Even if I'm the only person who ever bothers to read it. Call it a moral victory.


[February 2007:] I must red-facedly admit that, when rereading this, I found I had forgotten what incident it was referring to. I had to go back and look up the date (which, thank heavens, I gave exactly). In case you, too, find that this incident has partially vanished in a cloud of more recent horrors, including (sadly) far too many similar stories since then, here's your refresher:

On March 24, 1998, near the town of Jonesboro, Arkansas, two boys - Mitchell Johnson, age 13, and Andrew Golden, age 11 - stole a van from Johnson's home, and after loading it with camping supplies, food, and 7 weapons (two semi-automatic rifles, one bolt-action rifle and four handguns) which had been stolen from Golden's grandfather's house. Mitchell apparently had a bitter grudge against Shannon Wright, a teacher at their middle school. When the boys got to the school, Golden set off the fire alarm while Johnson took the weapons to the woods near the school. Golden then ran back to the woods where Johnson had taken the weapons. When children and teachers came out of the school, the two boys opened fire. 13 Students and 2 teachers were hit, 5 of whom died. The two were among the youngest ever charged with murder in the US.

I should like to point out that, while if anything my feelings about parents not doing their job properly have gotten stronger over time, I'm not sure how much that applies here. Both boys in this case came from broken homes.

It's also worth noting, then as now, that I am not against gun control. I am strongly in favor of it, in fact. My point here is that there may be other issues involved as well, ones which are even more pervasive, and ultimately more troublesome, then the free availability of guns. The guns only come in near the end of the disaster - the shooting is the last thing to happen, but unfortunately that's the only time when people notice that something has gone sour.

Meanwhile, the decline of civilized communication in our culture continues apace. Newt (Gingrich) is gone, but the newly lowered political standards he espoused have continued. In fact, they've continued to deteriorate. There is no longer any civility or compromise in national politics, and the rest of our society sets its standards accordingly. Everyone not for us is against us; everyone against us is to be demonized. I do not see a reversal as very likely.

In short, even if you come away from this column wondering what I've been smoking, remember the key message: there is something wrong with our culture. The rest is just detail.

After I wrote the original, a reader took issue with my comments. He argued that it was never the responsibility of the culture to provide the emergency brake, and it never has. He said:

"If someone is warped enough that his own value system is unreliable, as you state, then it may be far more likely that he'll pick and choose those things from the culture at large that reinforce his warped, unreliable value system, and ignore everything else."

I replied: True enough.

There's a certain SF writer whose opinions are often disputable, and I won't defend him here, but one of his statements I have always agreed with is that an increase in public rudeness is a sign of a dying culture. To my mind this is one of the primary symptoms which makes my general outlook on our national culture grim (some days very grim). Sometimes I go a bit overboard in order to stress this, because I don't think enough other people are paying attention.

It's a valid point that people take away only the things they want to take away, and you can't prevent that ... but must we provide them with such a rich, fertile field of material to draw the wrong conclusions from?

and now back to our program

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