Martorella: Hold your tongue

I was watching an adorable video on YouTube the other day, at the recommendation of one of the morning talk shows, looking for a little smile on stressful day. In the video, a toddler rocks out to Bruno Mars, kicking into high gear perfectly along with the beat, and it is awesome. When it ended, I started reading the comments and my smile faded as I watched them turn from complimenting the impressive adorability and musicality of this child into a trail of critiques about how the baby is secured in her carseat.

Perfect parents typed helpful thoughts along the lines of “Cute, but I was so distracted by that harness,” “It’s all fun until you get into a car accident,” and “Can’t you see how you are endangering your child??!!” (my paraphrasing, not direct quotes, but close!)

I went on to read a few articles about parenting, politics, and local news items on several online sites, each one followed by a litany of comments that quickly turned into personal attacks on the commenters and replies that read like literary shoving matches.

Come on.

When did “If you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all” turn into “Please make sure to share your opinion about everything and everyone, preferably in highly explosive, critical language.”

Remember back when people read newspapers, usually quietly in their own head. Maybe they grumbled about an occasional quote, article, or reaction with their breakfast companion, or discussed it at the office water cooler. The bravest of them would write a letter to the editor that might be printed and read by subscribers. But they usually shared a perspective or offered an opposing opinion in a respectful, articulate manner. They didn’t correct the writer’s grammar with disdain, or insult their name or voice or viewpoint with expletives in capital letters, in an impulsive instant that would become forever captured in print.

Besides, these were stories written for public consumption with the risks of disagreement well understood. In our current culture of reality television and social media, personal experiences are prone to unexpected public consumption, and the public is chewing them up and spitting them out.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” in some form is the premise of almost every religious or higher order value system in the world, and the way we speak about each other is as important as our actions. Even ancient civilizations knew the value of watching your words. “I have often repented speaking, but never of holding my tongue,” pondered Xenocrates (Greek philosopher, 4th century BC). “The primary virtue is: hold your tongue; who knows how to keep quiet is close to God,” stated Cato the Younger (Roman statesman, 1st Century BC). “Don’t Speak!” sang Gwen Stefani (American singer, 1996, ok, not ancient but still wise).

But the current climate supports a view of open expression that borders on plain, old-fashioned bullying.

What about: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me?” you may ask. They are just words, ignore them. The truth is that verbal abuse often inflicts the longest-lasting pain on our psyche and is least visible to the outside.

Consider the following illustration: Take a plate and throw it on the ground (Smash!). Did it break? (Yes). Now say sorry to it. (Sorry). Did it go back to the way it was before? (No.) Understand?  

A friend recently asked, “When did it become okay to say or do something you know is hateful or wrong and then apologize as if that makes it ok?”  I thought about the “Real Housewives” and other reality shows where the fighting is the height of the drama and the apologies are never the end of it. Did that start it all?

Some blame the new administration for promoting a climate of intolerance, but I wonder if this administration simply reflects the culture, not the other way around.  It hasn’t just been a few months or even a year that this behavior has been going on, but years. The combination of reality television, talk shows, and social media has created an era where people are as famous for behaving badly as they are for behaving well. Everybody wants their moment, and shock brings that attention faster than hard work or countless auditions.  

We don’t have to comment on everything we see or read, just because we can. If we feel an urge to respond to something we disagree with, we can take rational, calm, objective steps to handle it. Write a good old-fashioned letter to the editor. Talk about it with a friend. Join a committee to create real change.

“The tongue weighs practically nothing, but few people can hold it,” said an anonymous sage. Now there’s a challenge for us all.

Rebecca Martorella, LMFT welcomes ideas and comments and can be reached at