The other side of the mountain

As Francis Bacon observed, “Things alter for the worse spontaneously if they be not altered for the better designedly.”

“Strong communities are built on local dialogue: diverse people talking and listening to one another, breaking through the stereotypes,” Mountain Xpress Publisher Jeff Fobes wrote recently (see “A Raucous, Joyful Noise,” Aug. 4 Xpress).

Yet after five years of annual community dialogues sponsored by Asheville-Buncombe VISION, it’s sad to see how divided our community remains. There are many lessons that participants in the dialogues might have learned, but perhaps the most important one is how to disagree agreeably when one absolutely must disagree. And calling one’s “opponent” a repugnant name definitely doesn’t qualify.

A recent beach excursion with children and grandkids included many pleasant moments, of course, but it also reminded this grandparent of one of the more troubling aspects of children’s behavior. Name-calling was not a problem at the beach this year, but it was rampant years ago when I was a schoolboy, and it left me with many unhappy memories of middle school and even of the first years of high school. To this day, I don’t have much interest in high-school reunions, since I didn’t particularly enjoy my original contact with a lot of those folks and thus have little reason for wanting to renew the acquaintance.

When children call one another names, we assume it’s a bad habit they’ll eventually outgrow. But there seem to be distressing numbers of Asheville and Buncombe County residents who have yet to progress beyond this childish practice. No matter how vigorously one may disagree, calling the other person a “Nazi,” for example (as I overheard someone do in Asheville this past month), says much, much more about the speaker than about the person spoken of. It’s taking the easy way out, the thoughtless way out — and it reflects very badly on both the speaker and on his or her cause or group.

Some of us will always remember the real Nazis and what they did to real members of their own community. And for any English teachers who may be reading this, let me note that when it comes to name-calling, nouns seem to inflict the deepest wounds. Most adjectives, however deplorable, simply don’t have the “bite” that a skillfully wielded noun does.

Besides, there’s really no hiding behind the old expression, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!” Because, of course, words do hurt — often a good deal more than sticks and stones.

Name-calling is especially upsetting to a native Southern ear. As children, we were trained to be ladies and gentlemen, even if it meant “faking it.” One was agreeable even if one disagreed with one’s neighbor’s choice of clothing, hair color, make of automobile or even spouse. My wife and I returned to our Southern roots as soon as we could, at least in part because Southerners are so pleasant so much of the time. To be continually fractious is to be more like the folks up north, who were more prevalent where we used to live.

To be sure, the residents of our community have made some progress in this area. Almost all of the civilized folks I know have stopped using racial slurs when referring to, or addressing, African-Americans, Hispanics, Jews, Italians, Irish and even Muslim neighbors. We know we shouldn’t use insulting terms, and we usually don’t. It’s not a matter of political correctness but of fundamental human decency. Or perhaps it’s the gentle Southern background rising above the background clamor.

Still, collectively breaking the name-calling habit will require long-term, positive effort. And like most difficult jobs, it will be accomplished one person at time (and sometimes even one name at a time). Victory is the goal, but sudden victory is not in the cards — at least not as long as we remain imperfect human beings!

Don’t expect any help from journalists, either. As I write this column, I read name-calling insults in our own Asheville newspapers. It’s a bad, bad habit, and it’s a hard one to break.

Yet this basic behavioral change is important, for, as Francis Bacon observed, “Things alter for the worse spontaneously if they be not altered for the better designedly.”

For my part, I choose to practice, practice, practice cleansing my own speech of name-calling. And I choose to continue working on learning to be agreeable when I must disagree, so that my actions and speech actually help build avenues of communication and trust, rather than destroying them. Won’t you join me?

[George E. Keller is an adjunct professor of physics at UNCA. He serves on the board of Asheville-Buncombe VISION and as webmaster for RiverLink.]

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