Richard Nunley: A civil tongue

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Richard Nunley, an educator, poet and a long-time "Our Berkshires" columnist on the Eagle's op-ed page, died on March 3 of this year at the age of 84 in Portland, Oregon. After a recent local memorial service, educator, activist and occasional Eagle contributor Don Lathrop proposed the reprinting of a Richard Nunley column from May 7, 2003 that is particularly topical today.

NEW LEBANON, N.Y. >> In a column last week, [New York Times columnist] William Safire wrote in praise of vituperation. I don't know if he was just being smart-alecky, showing off by embracing a view audaciously counter to conventional thinking, or whether he really meant what he said.

He illustrated his remarks with a couple of examples of political insult, which did not strike me as particularly apt or witty — or even vituperative. They seemed more examples of repartee, of verbal jabbing or sparring — tactics in debate meant to neutralize an opponent's points and ridicule his logic, but not meant to assassinate him personally.

Vituperation is "bad-mouthing" — unleashed verbal abuse intended to injure its objects, a destructive expression of malice. Vituperation is not funny, not even in a TV sitcom or soap opera, where yelling is taken as the sign of high dramatic art.

Truth in the equation

Safire seemed to wish, not for more vituperation, but for spicier invective in politics, more vivid imagery, more clever impromptu rejoinders. That, it was implied, would make political campaigns more fun, more exciting, and thus get more people interested.

Maybe so, although one may wonder whether it is the purpose of politics to entertain and be fun. It would seem desirable to get more truth into the equation somehow.

With all due respect to Mr. Safire, verbal abuse seems an odd thing to hold up for admiration and emulation; abuse is abuse, whatever form it comes in.

Yet undeniably it seems to be the style these days. I suppose vituperation is regarded as daring frankness, as "telling it like it is," a style popularized by late-night TV comedians and certain radio commentators who specialize in loud scorn of government and self-righteous spreading of dirt. The style slops over into other areas, such as city council meetings and tabloid journalism.

No doubt the irresponsible license of the internet also contributes to the vogue of vituperation. Nobody pays much attention to speech that is merely true. Speech must be sensationalized or sentimentally personalized to be heard.

The danger is that what we repeat often enough we come to believe, and what we believe becomes the basis of our actions. The loss of civility in speech foments hostility and destroys the sense of community and mutuality our social well-being — our survival — depends upon.

Our early New England forebears were keenly aware of the power of speech to affect life, as Brandeis historian Jane Kamensky shows in her book "Governing the Tongue: The Politics of Speech in Early New England." Those were the days when a large segment of the still half-medieval population of Massachusetts believed that verbal curses and spells actually worked — with the right set of words someone who did not like you could make your horse lame, or sour your milk, or sic woodchucks onto your bean rows.

But it was not only the superstitious fringe which worried people. It was the potential of uncivil or untruthful speech to divide a small, vulnerable frontier colony into hostile factions. Truth was sacred, and Puritans expended endless time and effort trying to determine it.

Today, one could be forgiven for concluding that many people, our leaders included, consider "truth" to be whatever is convenient for them that people think — e.g., that the government is the citizen's adversary and taxes are intolerable confiscations. Repeated often enough, a statement comes to be regarded as gospel.

Critical to well-being

Our minister on Sunday pointed out that peace is not just a negative, not just the absence of war. He pointed out that peace — shalom — is "completeness," a state of "wholeness," (holiness.)

Uncivil speech, verbal abuse, vituperation, disregard of truth, malicious language — these subvert peace, these undermine "holiness" in this sense.

Responsible speech, particularly responsible political speech, may not be exciting or fun, but our well-being depends upon it.

I recently came upon this little formula derived from the writings of John Shelby Spong: "May the spirit of all truth inform and direct us; may the spirit of all love delight and enlarge us; may the spirit of all life energize us to serve."

That might be a watchword toward keeping a civil tongue.


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