In the late 1990s, a bipartisan group of three U.S. senators — Connie Mack, Joseph Lieberman and Jim Jeffords — introduced Senate Resolution 264 calling for a national “Speak No Evil Day” in America.
Here’s, in part, is what it said: “... bigoted words (are) often used to dehumanize entire religious, racial and ethnic groups, and inflame hostility in a manner that may lead to hostile attacks.” The rest of the resolution exposed how we use language in the form of cruel jokes, malicious gossip and slanderous speech which gives rise to irreparable and irrevocable damage to the human spirit. The resolution called for a cessation of evil speech throughout America for a 24-hour period.
Do we need a resolution like that today?
The Psalmist said, “Who is the person who is eager for life and desires years of good fortune? Guard your tongue from speaking evil and your lips from deceitful speech.” Words can destroy people or give them hope depending on how we recognize the impact of our speech.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, the author of “Words that Hurt, Words that Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well,” initiated the idea of Speak No Evil Day. The senators acknowledged that book as the source of their joint resolution. Telushkin wrote that “Speak no Evil Day” will be a day when, through our collective efforts, “we will experience a taste of heaven on earth.”
Did we grow up being exposed to prejudice against other races, religions or ethnic groups? Did we learn these attitudes from our families or within our communities? As adults, we grew up and formed our viewpoints about the world. Did we abandon or embrace hateful speech?
Most people learn how to suppress or veil their prejudices before speaking. Most know that expressing bigotry through language in the workplace, a house of worship and the social circles to which we belong reflects badly upon them and can, in certain situations, have legal consequences.
It is particularly frustrating when elected officials spew hate speech in a public forum. Last week, a state lawmaker from Kansas opposed legalizing marijuana and advocated that his state adopt the old anti-drug laws of the 1930s that outlawed all drugs in America. He gave a speech, captured on video, that said: “I hate to say it that the African-Americans, they were (back then) basically users and they basically responded the worst to those drugs just because of their character makeup, their genetics ... .”
When public officials engage in this kind of hate speech, it creates serious consequences for our communities, our nation and can even threaten our national security. Congress should reconsider enacting the National Speak No Evil Day each year and sponsoring activities that send a message to every child that American values do not tolerate hate speech against any race, religion, gender or, for that matter, anyone.
Americans cherish the Constitution’s First Amendment and the right of free speech. Does freedom of speech mean that we do not have a moral responsibility to speak in a civil tone? All of our religions have prohibitions that teach us to avoid hate speech in public. Should we not hold elected and public officials to a high bar whether it is the president of the United States or the local city council member for using hate speech?
Johns Hopkins Professor P.M. Fonti, in his book “Choosing Civility,” wrote, “When someone sees us as a thing to use or abuse, that becomes who we are in our own eyes as well. When we are on the receiving end of an act of kindness, we feel validated. We translate that act into a very simple, very powerful unspoken message to ourselves. ‘I am not alone. I have value and my life has meaning.’”
Choosing civility builds a stronger moral foundation in America and can make us better at solving our nation’s problems.
Are there any takers in Congress these days to resurrect National Speak No Evil Day? When will we finally accept the fact that words can be instruments of violence, too? America needs its leadership to set a new tone that can help us return to civility and to remember that our sacred texts teach us to “Guard your tongue from Evil Speech.”
It would surely be a welcomed respite and a healing balm for our nation.