I’ve been thinking a great deal about all the hand wringing recently in the media about name calling. Rush Limbaugh, in a world where comparing someone to Hitler or saying someone wants to “pull the plug on Grandma” gets a pass, was nearly universally vilified for going over the line recently. Saying someone is a slut, not like a slut, especially when it’s not a celebrity or politician, seemed to fit nearly everyone’s definition of “going over the line”.
But this really seems to be a distinction without a difference. People say mean, vicious, and vulgar things all the time. It can be bruising, it can be painful, but most of the time it is of little or no actual consequence. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words are usually just insulting.
For example, just this morning I received an email from someone I have served with on a non-profit board announcing that I am a “F***ING idiot” because of my opinion, a long time in coming and well-reasoned opinion shared by several State legislators and many in my field I must note, that the Office of Dog Law should be moved out of the PA Department of Agriculture and placed under the control of the State Police. Some have suggested it be moved to the PA Department of Health, and I can live with that. Many people have also suggested I am an idiot, and I learned to live with that long ago.
Mere vulgarity rarely results in much damage and that’s one of the reasons that it is an exempted form of speech from libel and slander suits. Vulgarity has its place and can make a precise and perfect point when well deserved. I’ve notably chosen on rare occasion, quite deliberately and with great care, to use utter vulgarity when an action or statement truly deserved it. I’m sure we all have. There are times when vulgarity just perfectly states what we feel. Perfectly. Just ask Cee Lo Green. That song wasn’t funny just because it was vulgar. It was funny because the vulgarity was the perfect expression.
I’m sure this person thought calling me an “F***ING idiot” felt it was warranted and who am I to judge? I know that it does no harm to me. Any more than the vulgarities cited by pro-Rush folks as being hurled at Sarah Palin hurt the former Governor. They are vulgar, yes, and they are harsh, but they say nothing about her. They say more about the person choosing to use the vulgarity. This is why I have always been very selective about directing vulgarity at someone.
But calling someone a slut is saying something about a person, about who they are and about what they do. When it’s directed at a private citizen who doesn’t share your political views and wasn’t being paid tens of millions of dollars to express those views, you should expect a bit more blow back than if a millionaire comedian says something nasty about a millionaire politician.
However, even among the potty mouthed one percenters and politicians (so often the same group these days), there are limits. I’ve been pretty vocal with people on “my side” about what I think is crossing the line when it comes to commentary on “the opposition”. While corruption exists in politics, it’s not universal enough to declare that any politician who opposes an animal welfare bill or doesn’t choose to prosecute someone is “corrupt” or in the pocket of a donor. Those are pretty serious allegations and they go beyond the merits of a law or a prosecution. They say something about the person they are directed at in a very specific and insidious way. Not that I don’t think these people shouldn’t be allowed to say these things. There is also a libel exemption for saying crazy, nasty things about public figures, and for good reason. The speakers just need to accept that not everyone will agree with the tactic, even if we agree with the sentiment.
And there is also usually another way to say the same thing. It may take longer than the one or two short hand words of vulgarity or shrill personal insults but it can usually be far more effective. When you can do it with some humor or irony, it can be devastating. Just ask Mark Twain. When one uses humor effectively, the truth can be presented in a way which even the target can acknowledge. It often allows for a dissection of the accused faults into little bite sized morsels, none of which are big enough to make the faulted choke on the attack. It allows the target to recognize flaws in himself and perhaps- if the person isn’t utterly humorless- laugh along in recognition of his or her own foibles.
It’s why so many politicians go on Saturday Night Live despite being satirically boiled alive in the past. Keith Olbermann called Palin an idiot. SNL just used her own traits and even own words to make the same case. Yet Palin makes an appearance on the show because she either recognized a little in the portrayal or at least wanted to prove she could be a good sport. No one expects anyone to be a good sport after being called a slut or “the C word”.
It’s why I make my feeble attempts at “funnying” up my idiotic opinion pieces. There are not many people out there who I really think rise to the level of Hitler in their motivations so, to be fair, I’d rather not use language which defines them as evil, corrupt, bad, or morally bankrupt. If I do, I paint them into a corner which they can’t get out of and they probably don’t really deserve to be in. And those sorts of direct, personal, “existential” attacks can do real personal harm and real world harm.
I hope you’ll forgive a detour into a discussion using myself as the example. I promise it will meander to a point. I’ve been in animal welfare for a while now and I’ve said and done many, many, many things which have severely pissed off those both within and without animal welfare. Being older and wiser now I can reflect on how well deserved some of that annoyance with me has been. I’ve always recognized that while I am certain my opinions are the right ones, not everyone agrees. At least until I’ve railed them into the ground with my superior reasoning and they finally wave the white flag, just to shut me up. I have never minded a good fight on the issues or even over the tactics. I will even embrace the occasional charge of “F***ING idiot” because it does me no harm.
What I have never learned to accept is the creative meanness of some who can’t seem to engage on the issue or tactic and don’t simply resort to vulgarity, but instead make a conscious choice to try to damage. In politics it would be the whisper campaigners who called around about John McCain’s “black daughter” in the 2008 primaries. We know that daughter was adopted. We also know what they were trying to say. There were plenty of real issues they could have attacked McCain on, yet they tried to damage him with the implied and totally false charge that he was a philanderer and, worse, philandered with someone of another race…oooooohhhh…he’s a bad, bad man.
It’s the same method which has inspired people who have I have annoyed for whatever reason to question not just my beliefs or opinion or even actions, but to attempt to create the image of me as a bad, bad man. Just like in McCain’s case where the rumors were spread by those in his own party, the people who have used this tactic against me and many others in animal welfare are others in animal welfare. Puppy millers don’t resort to the vile attacks which spout from the pie holes of those who are supposed to be on our side.
The more novice of the attacks are almost funny. “He never hugs puppies.” Not too far off the mark in reality. What most people don’t know is that I’m allergic to dogs. If I pet a dog and touch my face it turns red, starts to itch, and as I’ve gotten older starts to swell up. So I don’t do a lot of puppy hugging. That doesn’t stop me from petting my family dog, Treetop. I just wash my hands. It didn’t stop me from holding my first dog, Thumper, who I had adopted ten years earlier at my first job in animal welfare and who finally had reached the end of his fight with debilitating terminal cancer, as he lay in my arms in a puddle of his urine from the incontinence which came with his disease dying from the lethal injection I personally administered to end his suffering as I wept, as I want to do right now simply remembering that cold, Spring night.
I didn’t worry about allergies then as I felt his slowing heart beat and I reflect on that whenever I hear that someonein animal welfare with an axe to grind goes out in public and tells people I like killing animals. These people who are in the “humane movement” yet try to inflict suffering on humans whenever possible. I’m not among those who outwardly gush and cry over every animal, it’s not my nature. But those people don’t know what is inside me or anyone else.
They don’t know that on the third day I worked at my first animal shelter as an office person my boss insisted I join her in the euthanasia room to watch a pit bull be euthanized so I’d know “the reality” of working there. They don’t know that I almost passed out in the room, watching the dog stumble and fall from the tranquilizer and then gasp its last breath following the intravenous lethal injection. They don’t know that I spent that evening with a friend downing two big bottles of Beaujolais as I shared with him the experience of watching an animal be selected randomly because the shelter had run out of space and then being put to death by a manager who, despite what I know were the best intentions and a good heart, had been suckered into the notion of the inevitability of that death and the need for my “rite of passage” into the world of animal welfare. Or that I puked the wine and my guts up half the night. And then went back to work the next day, determined to help other animals and on the road to utterly changing what I think is inevitable or acceptable in animal sheltering. A road which has still required me to take personal responsibility for the deaths of tens of thousands of animals which I couldn’t save in the past two decades.
And these are among the least of what some of these people will say in an effort to damage or undermine me and others at the organization I’ve devoted myself to for the past seven years and the mission I’ve devoted myself to for the past twenty. Nasty comments about my wife and children. Rumors that my success comes from sleeping with my board chair, which came as quite a surprise to both of us. How humane of them.
This is the line. This is where “all’s fair” turns into assassination. I’m not just wrong, I’m bad and I’m evil, and so is anyone else who is associated with me. I am painted into my corner and I’m constitutionally incapable from responding in kind because I can’t return the favor without demeaning myself.
This they also don’t know. HSBC has a policy, punishable potentially by firing, against publicly speaking ill or deriding any client, associate, employee, or any other organization or person in animal welfare. Thinking it is fine. But we operate under our version of the golden rule wrongly attributed to Reagan: Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow animal welfare worker. Sometimes we want to, but we don’t.
I know that these people often fall into two groups. One group are the fanatics. One cannot disagree with a fanatic because it is proof positive for them that you are, in point of fact, evil. You can’t win an argument with a fanatic or expect to have a reasoned discussion. The other group tends to be the terrified and ill equipped, and there are so many of them. They may be devoted to the cause, they may be passionate, they may be quite genuine in their belief that a disagreement warrants such a vitriolic response or even lack the ability to see the patent falseness in the claims they make. They tend to be those who are not successful in their field or at a struggling organization. They snap and snarl out of fear, like an injured dog on a control pole. One can understand why the dog is snapping and snarling, one knows that there is no way to reason the dog out of attacking, but that knowledge does nothing to render the attack less painful or damaging.
The question always come back to whether any battle is truly won by or against such people? Whether they know not what they do or not, their own victories employing these tactics would seem to be quite tiny and pyric. The fact that I choose not to retaliate against their impotent snarling and snapping must certainly only render them more rageful against the chain holding them back and keeping them just out of reach of landing a real bite. Their attacks serve only to render me cold and hostile, not change me or make me reflect.
This is why humor and satire can be so much more effective. Despite my weepy martyring above, I am quite a flawed person and a fairly self-reflective one. Why let me off the hook? Why not stick effective pins in me, pins that make me squirm because the placement is so accurate I cannot help but recognize the truth in them. I know that among the most laughable characters in our “industry’s” cast of ego-maniacs, easily wounded petty martyrs, and know-it-alls is me. Why not make me grapple with that reality? If they can’t do it seriously on substance, at least try for a funny way to get to the heart of their problems with me and others they seem to loath.
As Peter Ustinov said, humor is simply a funny way of being serious. Making a joke of something doesn’t necessarily mean that thing is a joke. And nothing is funny for long if the only thing off limits is you. It’s for that reason that when I get the not so occasional direct or oblique personal insults or attacks on me or my motives and intents, my annoyance is now more from disappointment than insult. In this world of, as I mentioned earlier, ego-maniacs, easily wounded petty martyrs, and know-it-alls, I certainly have earned my place near the top and should inspire craftier insult than the usual, “Not only does he hate puppies, he’s a too clever by half, unfunny jerk, who thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room.” I mean, really, couldn’t that apply to pretty much anyone in this- or any- business? It’s also just kind of mean and doesn’t give me, as an easily wounded petty martyr, any room for self-reflection or acknowledgement that maybe there is some underlying truth to it.
How about something more like this? He’s so egotistical he starts the day saying to the mirror, “Neo, you are the one.” He’s so ambitious he thinks Sauron was a touch lazy. He’s such a know it all he thinks Wikipedia should run all their facts by him. He so self-important he thinks his own flatulence is the herald of angels. See, that’s all funny because it’s kind of true, and it makes me reflect on things I should be aware of in a way that just calling me a heartless jerk doesn’t. And even when it’s directed at me it keeps me engaged.
When I try to get to the heart of something in an opinion piece using humor, even when it is pretty pointed and tough, I hope that the target person reading- see there I go with the self-centered thing of assuming much more important people than me are actually reading the joking tripe I write- feels a balance of “Ouch,” and, “Yeah, that’s little right.” Maybe that moment of pause, a pause not allowed by outright insult or attack, might lead to reflection and reconsideration. Maybe I can get the person to think that while I may be an unfunny jerk, I might not be entirely wrong. And maybe that’s just wishful thinking and me hoping that my written chuckle fests aren’t just a more subtle version of a nasty personal attack. I think I may toe over that line on occasion myself.
Not too long ago I ran into Jessie Smith, former Dog Law Czar at a conference. I’ve written some pretty direct stuff about her being, in my opinion, a faithless partner to those of us in animal welfare, politically driven, and being generally untrustworthy. I’ve also written some pretty funny stuff about her and what I think was the largely terrible job she did while at dog law. Funny to the point of reaching the line and sometimes written with the conscious effort to get as close to it as I could without going over. Beware of trying not to cross a line of your own drawing. Chances are you’ve drawn it well over the line everyone else considers the real line.
Anyway, I saw Jessie at a conference. We smiled, said hello, she pulled me aside to talk and led with something along the lines of, “So, I read your blog.” It gave me pause. Here was a very real person who had been on the receiving end of cleverness and I had the distinct feeling that I had wounded her a little. I’m not a totally heartless guy and I felt a bit bad, especially since she had just been bounced out of her job and, while I called for it often, it’s tough to see someone in defeat. So I hemmed and hawed a little as we got to chatting about what was happening at Dog Law and she started offering up what was, in my mind, utter revisionist history which served to make her look like a saint.
In that moment I went from thinking maybe I had gone a little overboard in writing at her expense to realizing I had been dead on with most of my fault finding in her professionally. And I told her so, very directly, and we had a discussion which was animated enough to make at least one person standing there start backing slowly away.
Ultimately, I think that is the truest determination of what is acceptable to say about someone. Would you say it to her face? Say it to her face in public, surrounded by other people? Nothing I had ever written about Jessie Smith or her job was something which I wouldn’t say to her in a crowd, feel justified, and know I wasn’t going to get ejected by security. She responded to me in kind. And when it was all over we shook hands, parted ways, and thought no less (or more) of one another. That’s what grown-ups do.
Rush Limbaugh would never stand at a cocktail party and call that woman a slut and a prostitute to her face. He’d likely get a drink in his and be asked to leave by the hosts. Jessie and I could have had that animated discussion at a cocktail party and it may have raised some eyebrows but it would have, at most, resulted in our hosts taking us each by the arm and leading us into different rooms. Half the people would have remembered her as the boor, the other half would have remembered be as that guy who thinks he’s funny, but everyone would be sure to return when the next invitation arrived in the mail.
What if the Governor or a legislator was at the party and someone said they were corrupt or had been bribed by a lobby? That’s pretty damn insulting. What if someone was there and told me I like killing animals? That would likely be prima facie evidence of too much to drink and a cab would be called. What if that person accused me of having an affair with my boss and said nasty things about my family? That one might be remembered as the party where the person should have had drinks cut off sooner before he said something that resulted in getting punched in the face. OK, I’m not a puncher. I’d rely on vulgarity.
Enough with all the hand wringing about what people say about each other. We should all say what we want but we better accept the consequences, whether it is losing radio sponsors, elections, market share, donors, credibility or a few teeth. We all say mean things in private. When it’s said in public, we’d all do well to ask ourselves, would I say it to his or her face?
And then get ready to duck.