“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” —Maya Angelou
I took a break from most social media in the final months of 2016 and the first weeks of 2017. I logged on to post links to this blog or an occasional photo, but I didn’t scroll through Facebook or look much past the most recent Tweets in my feed. I was working on revisions for an editor and I didn’t need the distraction. When I turned in those revisions, I began to read more and scroll more and spend more time in those virtual meeting places. Let me tell you, coming back was a jolt. Apparently a whole lot of people are angry about political correctness. The phrase “PC bullshit” seems to be trending. It is ugly out there, y’all, and I am appalled.
I believe the First Amendment is our country’s greatest ideal. The right to express yourself, to speak out in support of the things you believe and to speak out against the things you oppose, is sacrosanct. But your right to speak does not override my right to speak out when you say hateful things. Words matter. What you say and how you say it matters. Speech has consequences.
Sometimes people say offensive things and other people try to convince us they don’t mean it. He has a good heart, they say. As if the heart is somehow disconnected from the mouth. I don’t buy it. I believe the heart and the mouth are one. If you tell racist jokes, you are a racist. If you mock disabled people or transgendered people or gay people, you are a bigot. If you harass women by grabbing them or walking in on them while they undress, you are a sexual predator.
I don’t give a damn about political correctness, I really don’t. I do, however, care about the effect of my words on other people. I have said things I regret in the past and I will say things I regret in the future, but I hope I have the good sense to apologize and work to make things right when my words cause offense to innocent people. I hope I don’t get my back up and start attacking the very people I’ve offended. I know that my speech does reflect my heart. I don’t want anyone who hears me speak or who reads my words to feel like my heart is a mystery.
Let me tell you something, your heart is not a mystery either. When you speak—online or at a party or one-on-one with your closest friends—you reveal your heart. And I choose to believe you when you tell me who you are.
Words matter. It’s not about political correctness, it’s about compassion. And if you can’t muster up some compassion and understanding for people who aren’t exactly like you, that tells me everything I need to know about your heart. I am not immune from the instinct to mock and belittle. When BuzzFeed released that unverified report with the salacious sexual details, I laughed. But I quickly realized that it’s hypocritical of me to be gleeful over reports of one man’s sexual proclivities while claiming it isn’t relevant for another man. I care very much about some of the other details in that report. If true, it indicates possibly treasonous activities and those should be investigated and reported widely. Those actions should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But who am I if I focus on the easy target? Who am I if I fill my Twitter feed with jokes and barbs about these details? How can I square my moral outrage about the proliferation of fake news with a willingness to spread unconfirmed and ugly rumors? I can’t. If I give in to that instinct, I’m not the person I want to be.
Look, I’m not immune to the charms of snarkiness, to the lure of us-against-them; it is tempting to wallow in the muck of public sentiment. It would be so easy to make derisive jokes and sing the “Schadenfreude” song from Avenue Q. But I don’t want to be the sort of person who crows about ugly details. I want to be the sort of person who speaks up about things that matter, about things that are true.
Our words reveal who we are. There is no disconnect between heart and voice. And I, for one, am glad. It is good to know who we are dealing with. It’s good to know what’s in a person’s heart. A person who spends his or her life berating, mocking, and bullying others has a dark heart indeed. Every time we stoop to the level of the dark-hearted, our own hearts lose a bit of brightness.
This year, I am going to work hard to keep my heart from dimming. I will fail. I will stoop to using my words in ways that are harmful rather than helpful. I will say petty, vengeful things. But I will strive to choose my words carefully. Whether I’m angry or disappointed or hopeful, I will work to make sure my voice represents my heart.