The past few days have provided a cornucopia of reprehensible statements, reactions to which tell us as much about our country as the comments do about the speakers. Within those reactions, one finds both cause for concern and consolation.
Concern includes the potential ramifications of cruel or poorly conceived expression. Making racist remarks can do great harm to the public trust and damage hard-won gains toward racial harmony. Consolation can be found in evidence that Americans on the whole have no tolerance for racism or discriminatory behavior.
But there are other layers of concern that at least bear mention: One is the loss of privacy owing to the widespread tendency to record people without their knowledge and the facility with which those utterances or behaviors can become viral.
One could make a case for the net positive of exposing harmful thoughts. On the other hand, one is reminded of the Bob Dylan lyric: “And if my thought-dreams could be seen/They’d probably put my head in a guillotine.”
Another source of concern is the tendency to condemn groups of people according to the words or deeds of one or a few. Racial profiling is one such manifestation: If black teens commit burglaries in certain neighborhoods, then all black teens become suspect — and Trayvon Martin dies by a vigilante’s bullet.
Indicting all Republicans as racist because of one cowboy’s rant is another form of profiling. If one old white guy thinks blacks were better off on the plantation than they are collecting unemployment insurance, then all old white guys (a large percentage of whom vote Republican) must be similarly racist.
Finally, we should all be nervous about the instantaneous formation of social media mobs that attack a single individual whose comments, while contemptible, result in a virtual execution. Once the mob descends, no punishment short of absolute destruction seems sufficient. People may want justice but the mob wants blood.
The characters corresponding to the above need no introduction. The old white guy is Cliven Bundy, the cattle rancher who greeted Bureau of Land Management agents with guns. Fortunately, no shots were fired, but the spectacle gave Bundy, a longtime federal-government denier, an opportunity to espouse his now-familiar views on race.
Next came Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, 80, who urged his mixed-race then-girlfriend not to post online photos of herself with blacks or bring blacks to basketball games. The comments were captured on tape and leaked to TMZ, an online dispenser of human nightmares. Who taped and who leaked haven’t yet been established, though gossip and theories abound.
Sterling isn’t a likable guy, most are agreed. He has a checkered history as a landlord who allegedly didn’t want to rent to Hispanics or African-Americans. His comments suggest disrespect for his players, who are good enough to make him richer but not to sit in his stands. For those comments, the NBA on Tuesday banned Sterling for life and fined him $2.5 million.
The pain his statements caused his players, the African-American community and basketball fans everywhere was enough to warrant calls for him to step down. Never mind his callous disregard for women, including his mistress and especially his wife.
So many morals, so little space.
First the practical: If you don’t want your words broadcast in the public square, don’t say them. The Orwellian taint to this advice is not meant to be harsh but is offered in recognition of the world in which we live. We’re not so much a global village as a small town of gossips.
On a higher note, such potential exposure forces us to more carefully select our words and edit our thoughts. This isn’t only a matter of survival but is essential to civilization. Speaking one’s mind isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be, as any well-balanced person reading the comments section quickly concludes.
Ever wonder who those people are? I have some thoughts but my finely tuned self-editing skills prevent my sharing. Instead, I offer a refrigerator quote I’ve always liked. It’s often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi but possibly may have tumbled from the lips of a new-age guru. Regardless of the source, it fits the occasion:
“Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.”
Whence our beliefs, it seems, is the crucial challenge. Alas, bigots by definition are not inclined toward self-awareness.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for The Washington Post.