It wasn’t a gag order; it wasn’t a violation of our First Amendment rights. It was my mother ruling us with her 'mom voice' and raised brow, insisting on what she called 'common decency.' We were not to hit, bite, or hurt others with our words. Later, in the kid world of the schoolyard, during the 'mean girl' years, some of us learned to use otherwise innocuous words to bully others. 'Nice hair,' someone would say, dripping with sarcasm; while 'I like your dress' could send a classmate to the restroom in tears. Middle school was when we learned the dangerous power of words. Freedom of speech is not an unregulated freedom: to publicly and untruthfully harm another is not permitted. False statements that create dangerous situations are not anyone’s right. But 'common decency' is a shared belief that is frequently violated, and that violation harms us all.
Today, politicians and advertisers use words to control audiences; to convince people to act or to spend money. Social media and other forms of communication combine the force of word and image, and bombard us with messages that look like information. It’s easy to stop thinking, to simply let the word-mongers push us to accept the most frequent, or most persuasive messages. Politicians frequently take a familiar word of praise and turn it against their rivals.
Like the word 'woke' — hear someone is woke, and you can think you know everything about her. It is an adjective deliberately turned 180 degrees to spread distrust. You should be woke after your coffee and before you hit the expressway, you should be awake to the needs of your unhappy friend. But woke has been deliberately turned into a negative, implying that those who are aware of social inequities or climate change or who read books — that these woke people are trying to take something away from others. One of the strangest linguistic twists, when used against a political opponent, is liberal. Though you may want a liberal portion of pie after Thanksgiving dinner, the word is twisted popularly to mean elitist, someone who doesn’t understand or support the average citizen. Its original connotations as generous, open, seeking knowledge, a Renaissance person — these connotations have been subsumed into their opposite.
But John Fitzgerald Kennedy, that brilliant leader, rebutted his opponents, 'If by a ‘liberal ’they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties … if that is what they mean by a ‘liberal, ’then I’m proud to say I’m a liberal.' Sadly, it’s still used as an insult by political bullies.
So too, socialism is nearly taboo in the United States. People forget the benefits brought about by Social Security, a pension plan for all of us, financed by all of us — helping retirees and protecting them from private fund managers. We also benefit from the Affordable Care Act. We all use publicly funded highways. We all are protected from botulism by the Food and Drug Agency. The price of medicines skyrocketed under private enterprise, but the cost of insulin has recently been lowered — although conservatives opposed this change. It’s not wrong to want life-saving medicine to be affordable for everyone. Democratic socialism promotes protection of individuals from unbridled capitalism — sort of like strong unions protect workers right now while CEOs ’wages hit the roof.Similar distortions have made pejoratives out of equality, diversity, feminist, inclusion, communism, immigration… the list goes on.
But today political insults have exacerbated the anger and violence of our time, resulting in death threats and actual murders. Families have been threatened, and in at least one case, a family member severely injured. The extreme language used by political bullies harms everyone. It’s more than a loss of common decency; it’s a public danger.
— Sharon Kourous is a retired teacher and member of Stronger Together Huddle, a group engaged in supporting and promoting the common good. She resides in Monroe and can be reached at email@example.com.