Why can’t we learn to hold our tongues?



Another year is winding down, and it’s a time when people take stock of the 12 months we’ve lived through.

Looking back on 2016, a bunch of words aptly describe this year: anger, division, animosity, hatred, intolerance, stress, upheaval.

I wish more people were familiar with the late Albia attorney Frank J. Karpan, a charmingly cantankerous character I knew for 30 years. He was an astute observer of events and people. On more than one occasion he said, “I missed an ideal opportunity in there to keep my mouth shut.”

That was Frank’s way of admitting he probably had not used enough care in choosing his words. Many people should heed Frank’s self-critique.

For whatever reason, too many Americans seem incapable of holding their tongues and keeping inappropriate thoughts and comments to themselves. For these people, it’s not enough to simply offer a contrary opinion. 

These people want to tear down people they dislike or with whom they disagree.

And they seem compelled to share their biting thoughts and comments with the entire world. We are pummeled daily by intemperate, impolite, tasteless, cruel and mean-spirited remarks.

It hasn’t always been this way, thankfully. At one time, people would civilly debate important issues without trying to destroy each other.

But with far too many leaders and politicians engaging in this litany of anything-goes comments, is it surprising that ordinary folks are spewing whatever comes to mind about someone or something with whom they don’t agree?

Consider Carl Paladino, a Buffalo, N.Y., business owner. The unsuccessful candidate for New York governor was the state chairman of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Paladino also serves on the Buffalo school board, where he presumably works to prepare the next generation of adults.

Last week, he apparently believed it would enlighten our nation’s civic dialogue if he shared his desire that Barack Obama die of mad cow disease in 2017 “after being caught having relations with a Herford.”

And his wish for Michelle Obama? “I’d like her to return to being a male and let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla,” he said.

Paladino’s crazy comments were not some isolated example. You don’t have to look far to see such over-the-top commentary around us. You will hear it on cable television news shows; you will see it on Twitter and Facebook; it will be in letters to the editor and readers’ comments posted at the end of articles on news websites.

Coarse comments like Paladino’s are not the exclusive tool of one political party. Democrats and Republicans both engage in these verbal assaults.

Even with the election seven weeks behind him, Donald Trump still seems more focused on tearing down those who disagree with him than he’s concerned about building better relations with the more than one-half of Americans who did not vote for him.

Trump believes his supporters want him to be a straight talker. But far more people are concerned that impressionable young people will think this kind of verbal barrage is acceptable.

Those people are concerned that our new president’s dismissive language will divide us further, rather than helping us find areas of agreement. They are concerned that people will think passing up an opportunity to verbally savage someone who disagrees is a sign of weakness.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

One of the memorable news photographs this year was from the dedication ceremony in September for the new Smithsonian Museum of African American History. The photo showed First Lady Michelle Obama hugging former President George W. Bush, who had a wonderfully serene expression on his face.

The two were not worried about issues on which they disagreed. In that moment, they showed that people who disagree can come together with respect and admiration for each other and with a civility that is too rare these days.

The Bushes and Obamas also shared the stage this summer at a memorial service in Dallas, Texas, following the murder of five police officers in an ambush.

Bush’s comments included a powerful message for those who focus on our differences, rather than our similarities: “Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions.”

I prefer the example being set for Americans young and old by George Bush and Michelle Obama than the negative examples big and small that are around us in the news and on social media.