The bully pulpit

By Bob Buckel | Published Saturday, October 19, 2013

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No matter how long man endures, no matter what bombs, bullets, death-rays, lasers or phasers he invents, words will remain the most powerful weapon ever devised.

If there was a puff of smoke every time someone fired off a damaging word, I’m afraid our world would look like coal-powered England at the height of the Industrial Revolution.

We’d never see the sun.

Bob Buckel

Bob Buckel

We live amid a flurry of words such as mankind has never experienced. Every day brings a barrage – in newspapers, magazines, books, TV, radio, websites, blogs, texts, tweets – and even those words that still get delivered face-to-face, mouth-to-ear.

We see and hear every day the best and worst of words – skilled words that bring belligerents to the bargaining table, soothe the angry and build up the beaten-down, as well as stupid words that belittle and mock, break ties, destroy relationships, set off wars and shut down governments.

I’m sorry, was “stupid” too strong a word there? No, I think I’ll stick with it.

Gracious, courageous and inspirational words have launched careers. Thoughtless, careless, unguarded words have ended them.

More than careers are at stake, of course.

It was words in the newspaper that prompted this diatribe. In Florida just this week, authorities filed charges against two girls, ages 12 and 14, for “maliciously harassing” a 12-year-old girl who committed suicide Sept. 10 by jumping off a tower at a cement plant.

This young girl was verbally and physically bullied, tormented for two years over a boyfriend, until she took her own life. Much of what drove her to it, her parents said, was delivered through “social media.”

They didn’t want to take away her phone or ban her from Facebook, they said. Trying to cut her off from the source of her misery, they would have cut her off from her friends.

Part of me wants to roar.

Throw away the phone! Bury the computer! Forget social media! You’re 12 years old! Live!

Sadly, that little girl was far from alone in believing she could not live without social media. Neither, as it turned out, could she live with it. It’s an everyday dilemma among far too many 12-year-olds.

I text quite a bit, but I don’t tweet and seldom visit Facebook. Sitting in front of a computer all day at work, it’s the last thing I want to do at home.

But I admit, almost every day I look at the comments under online stories in our newspaper. I consider it part of my job – although when we publish a controversial article or opinion piece, I cringe when I see that “5 Comments” have popped up.

But our readers are required to identify themselves, and that tends to temper the conversation, even when it’s critical.

Other sites have no such requirement, and that – as I heard someone say on the radio this morning – sets off a “race to the bottom.”

People get there quickly when there are no rules, no boundaries and no consequences.

Nothing is sacred in comments, nothing is off-limits, nothing is out of bounds. The Anonymous Courageous, who would never dare confront those they torment face-to-face, have their say and their way in that safe cyber-world.

The worst of words makes it the worst of worlds.

I think I’m going to start honoring the memory of that young lady in Florida by skipping it. Any site where commentors can remain anonymous is a site I can live without.

That should free up more time for words that come with smiles, handshakes and hugs. Words like “I love you,” “Good job,” and “Thank you.”

This world could stand a lot more words like that.

Bob Buckel is editorial director of the Messenger.

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