Long, long ago, grown-ups taught me to respond to schoolyard taunts with a dignified “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!” It was reasonably effective because even if the offender responded by escalating the taunt to something like, “You are ten times stupider than a stupid-head,” I could repeat my “sticks and stones” mantra till he or she got thoroughly tired of hearing it. I miss those days.
Sadly, the world of child’s play where the sticks and stones mantra was meaningful, no longer exists. Verbal and psychological abuse have been ratcheted up to an art form by groups like the “mean girls” immortalized in film. Nowadays, the mean girls and boys are even more destructive, having a wide selection of technological assists like individual phones and social (or anti-social) networks. Parents, teachers, and administrators spend countless hours worrying about this bullying and how to protect children from the unmitigated cruelty of their peers. In this context, a few broken bones might be a preferable substitute for the lies and ugliness being broadcast through cyberspace.
It’s not just a little ironic that the progress of this civilization has led to the development of tools with such destructive potential. The seeds of destruction can be sown through cable television, internet social networks, blogs, websites, and cell phones. While we achieve higher levels of technological progress, we are becoming less civilized. Technology seems to have subverted any appreciation of the value of truth and the rules of fair play or simply doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. Unfortunately, young people are not gifted with perfect judgment, and they make mistakes. Always have and always will, no matter how many times we say that they should know better. What has changed is how the effect of a mistake can be amplified by being broadcast to the world with a few keystrokes. More than one young person has chosen suicide as an escape from ridicule, bullying, and betrayal via our hi-tech modes of dispersion.
It’s hard to censure youth culture when its members are simply imitating what they assimilate from our so-called civilized society as a whole. They hear elders and pundits who tell lies, half truths or sensationalize the trivial, e.g., politicians who call the President a liar, groups who turn a war hero into a military slacker, pundits who spin black into white, and paparazzi who stalk others for intimate photographs for which they get big bucks. No one is beyond attack or smear.
And even our own words can come back to harm us, as Shirley Sherrod found out this week when her statements were played out of context on the internet in a snippet of video promoted by Andrew Breitbart, professional smear artist. Did anyone question the context? Did anyone in a position of moral authority and power (the NAACP) sit down and talk with Ms. Sherrod or ask to see the tape from which the offensive piece had been cut? Did her bosses at the USDA stop to think that – considering the source – it might not have been what it seemed? No, she was accused, convicted, and executed almost in one fell swoop.
There seem to be no rules anymore. And what’s worse is that people who have fought long and hard to achieve fairness threw her summarily under the bus, virtually without blinking. As for the USDA bosses, a few days ago, I would have never conceived that a federal agency would dismiss an employee without as much as a hearing to gather facts and listen to her side of the story.
One of the things that attracted me to a legal career is the existence of clear rules governing the courtroom. Granted, bad things can still happen and outcomes can be questioned. It can seem like armed combat – but the weapons are rule books and everyone has equal access to them. The accused always gets a chance to tell her side of the story to the fact finder(s). No one can put a document into evidence unless it has been authenticated first. Participants must identify themselves and swear to telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And if someone shows just a part of a document or videotape, there are rules of evidence providing that the other side can object and require that the entire document or videotape be shown. Invoking this rule of the courtroom would have guaranteed that the folks who “convicted” Ms. Sherrod would have heard all of her speech and how she overcame her racial bias against white farmers, helping them simply because they needed that help.
While lawyers generally get a bad rap in our society, I believe the legal system guarantees as much fairness as we are going to find anywhere, most of time. And as things degenerate in the high-tech jungle of the real world, I like knowing that there is still a sanctuary for fair play, where a referee in a robe takes the rules seriously and will force – in most cases – the participants to play fair, even if it isn’t in their nature. I like spending my days in the legal world, because – even while I’ve encountered bullies imitating legal professionals – there are far more of the other kind, those who suit up and honor the lawyer’s creed every single day.
To those legal bullies, I can just say in perfectly civilized legalese, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”