Monday, October 20, 2008

Be Careful with Your Endorsement

An email exchange this week has prompted me to revisit the topic of the power of words and what can happen when we lend our voices to communicating those words.

I believe that we have the power to harm or to heal with what we say as well as with how we treat other people. Sending our words into the world is part of how we treat others. It is as possible to commit acts of violence against others in words as it is in the physical realm of existence.

What we say (as an extension of our belief) is powerful. When we speak something, we add energy to it. We send it out into the universe with an infusion of life force.

When I talk about words, I'm referring to both the spoken and written forms. What we write is also powerful.

If you've had any exposure to my thinking before, you know that I also believe that what we 'don't say' has the power to harm (and in some cases benefit).

I want to focus today on the idea of how what we 'don't say' can be harmful. I've written before about my personal commitment to always speak out when an idea that is harmful is expressed in my presence. This is most easily understood when we think of racist or other prejudicial statements, jokes and the like. You can listen to a talk I gave here: Spiritual Messages from the Middle East Conflict, for more of an understanding of how I came to this decision and some of my experiences in living this principle. It has gotten me into some very interesting situations!

It is usually not very popular to do this. When people get embarrassed they get defensive. I *try* not to embarrass people when I state my disagreement with a destructive idea. However, when the idea is expressed publicly, then I am committed to stating my objection publicly. This is undoubtedly the more difficult circumstance. Yet, my moral conscience obliges me to do so.

When we let someone say something destructive about another group of people (such as a stereotypical, prejudicial or racist slur) and we say nothing... we subtly validate what has been said. We add credence to the thought or idea that was expressed, by our presence and 'non-objection.' This is true for emails that get circulated with our names on them. Our name being present might influence someone (if they know who we are). It is like an 'endorsement' of the idea. Even though we might totally disagree! What if that email reaches someone who knows us? What if they don't know anything about the subject independently, but decide that we do know... and they can trust our judgment? They might 'buy in' to that idea because they think we do. When our name is attached to destructive, hate and distrust encouraging materials, we should stand up and say, "I disagree" and "Please do not associate me with this type of thinking."

Some people are afraid to rock the boat, or hurt some one's feelings by doing that. I have said before that I have friends in almost every ethnic and religious group around. Jokes, negative stereotypes or prejudicial statements against almost any group instantly brings the faces of my friends into my mind. THEY would be hurt if they were present. If they are not present, it is my duty, as their friend, to stand up for them. I feel this way about all peoples... no matter who they are or from what walk of life they are.

Here's the key. I don't need to change any one's mind (although there's always the secret hope that a challenge to a destructive idea will get someone to look more closely at their position, I will admit). The goal, however, is not to win an argument, or change a position. It is merely to make it CLEAR that I do not support, endorse or agree with what has been said. That is my only job. That keeps my conscious clear.

One of my favorite quotes of all times refers to the Holocaust and what happened when good people remained silent out of fear and self preservation. It illustrates clearly, that actually - we are all tied together in this human family. When any one of us is persecuted... we are all harmed. All of us.

"First they came for Socialists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me."

Rev Martin Niemoeller (1892-1984)

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