Years ago, when I was PTA Rabble Rouser in Chief, a parent came to a meeting with an elaborate presentation about something called “character education.” She said that children needed to be taught manners and how to be nice to each other, in school. She backed up her argument with charts and visual aids. I was a bit taken aback because I thought that manners, tolerance and how to be kind to other people was MY job, at home, as a parent. After pointing out that recommendations for changes to the educational system needed to be implemented by the school board, not the PTA, I went home very puzzled. A year later, character education became a state mandate. How was it possible that we needed to mandate the teaching of common decency and civility?
I must be blind or completely out of the loop. It seems that not only did we need character education, a major sector of this country needs a refresher course. Suddenly, people seem to think they can say whatever they want, no matter how mean, intrusive or bigoted. At check-out lines across the country, nutty people feel emboldened to comment nastily on other people, without knowing anything about their challenges, their lives or who they are. A mother struggling with two special needs kids, another young boy and a toddler gets threatened with CPS by the woman in front of her. Wouldn’t it have been kinder to say, “May I help you?” The nephew of a friend, calmly waiting his turn on line in a store suddenly gets called a vile racial epithet for no reason at all, other than some bug-eyed man’s idea of “free speech.” Using the excuse that we no longer have to be “politically correct,” the crazies have come out of the closet.
Calling people names is not “telling it like it is.” Being rude, hostile, loud and threatening does not show strength of character – quite the opposite. What happened to offering assistance? To common courtesy? Tolerance? Basic human dignity and kindness? Character is defined as the mental and MORAL qualities of an individual. Can we live up to our highest standards instead of the lowest?
Free speech does not mean you can say whatever hateful or hurtful thing that pops into your head. Good character dictates thinking before speaking, in case your words might wound. Free speech is not verbal vomiting. In a civil society, we need to be just that – civil. Good character means good conduct in the best sense, not because it is politically correct but because it is good. We do not know what another person is going through and it behooves us to take a breath and at least try to be calm and kind. And if we are unable to do that, perhaps we should not speak at all.