Stan Voit: These days words, not actions can do you more harm

Jul. 06, 2013 @ 11:49 PM

The things we were taught as kids were meant to help us through tough times. These days, so many of those axioms have been abandoned. We choose to care about things we were once told not to care so much about.

I am reminded of this as I follow the Paula Deen saga. It’s hard not to follow it. For days it was the lead on every TV news program. She should thank George Zimmerman and the chaos in Egypt for moving her to Page 5. She, like the three Pigeon Forge officers, has learned that in these times words, not actions, can be just as troublesome — even more so.

I grew up in Alabama and have lived my entire life in three southern states. Though the N-word was never said on my house or condoned by those who lived there, I heard it on the playground, at school, at the little league park, around town and among the customers in my father’s store. I like to think I had the sensibility to know it was wrong to call people names, even though I often joined other kids my age in picking on classmates who maybe didn’t play sports as well or were different in some way.

Could I testify under oath that I never, ever, used the N-word? No, I cannot. I can say I never used it pejoratively. I used it when quoting somebody or in the context of a story or even when reading aloud a Mark Twain novel. I never in my life called or referred to a black person by that name.

Still, how I treated others is best left for those people to decide, not me.

Preachers who railed from the southern pulpits about how the Bible justifies segregation of the races and stood silent as black people were mistreated around them are hard to find these days. When I moved to Tuskegee in 1975 the all-white First Baptist Church blocked black Tuskegee University students from entering to worship. Where in the Bible did it say that was God’s commandment?

Paula Deen’s troubles, of course, go beyond merely admitting she said that word. Her racially charged actions are an issue in the lawsuit against her and her business. A business these days is sensitive to bias claims, and the fact they have dropped their association with her is more a reaction to fears of fallout than a condemnation of what she said. Still, some of what drives the relentless assault on her operations is that she speaks with a southern accent.

It’s as much about who you are as what you say.

How else to explain why actor Alex Baldwin gets a pass after an anti-gay Twitter rant followed by an apology that mentioned his support of the gay movement? Or rappers can say some of the most vile, hateful things in the lyrics of their songs, but continue to sell records and sign contracts? Pro athletes can commit repeated felonies yet remain employed and celebrated. Mike Tyson raped a woman, served time in prison and now is sought after for movies and TV.

It’s hard to figure who gets forgiven and who doesn’t. But this much seems clear: These days actions do not speak louder than words, as we were told as kids. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but in the 21st Century words might do much more harm.

Businesses are free to buy from whom they want to buy from, and consumers are free to do the same. As unfair as it may seem that Deen is seeing her empire crumble day by day, that’s the marketplace for you.

People have shown a willingness to forgive, or at least give a second chance to, somebody who breaks the law. But certain words are toxic. So toxic that I dare not even to mention them here, in case they come back to haunt me.

The way I have lived my life over these six decades should determine how I am regarded by those with whom I came in contact. I have gotten mad at people, hung up on people, written bad stories about people (who deserved it, by the way), been rude to people. I once spanked my 7-year-old son for not eating his school lunch yet again, only to find out later he had gotten out of school that day before lunch (he forgave me, but I never spanked him again).

Actions, not words, should be the stronger definition of our lives and interfaction with others. Unfortunately, certain words seem to have more influence on one’s perception of others than how we treat people. That is an unfortunate trend in our civilization.

— Stan Voit is editor of The Mountain Press. His column appears each Sunday. He can be reached at 428-0748, ext. 217, or e-mail to Twitter: @stanvoit.