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Care with our Language

by Charles Bush

I am writing this comment on our Redwood Coast Senior Center non-discrimination policy as it applies to how we talk to and about each other. Words are very powerful. Our policy says: “No form of verbal, physical or sexual abuse or harassment will be tolerated . . . and no form of discrimination based on race, national origin, religion, disability, pregnancy, age, military status, gender or sexual preference will be tolerated.” It further states “Clients or Employees believing that they have been subjected to any form of abuse or discrimination have the responsibility to report or complaint to management immediately” and that the Center “prohibits retaliation against any client or employee for filing a report of discrimination or harassment.”

Our society is certainly struggling these days with what kind of talk is OK – where and under what circumstances – and our customs and values are changing. While free speech is a tradition we highly value and protect constitutionally, that does not mean that a private organization cannot further restrict speech in a private place of business, such as the Senior Center. It is important that both workers and clients feel safe and respected here. Therefore refraining from speech or behavior which is threatening or disrespectful to others is a way to make working here a positive experience for staff and volunteers, and assuring that everyone who visits is able to enjoy the services and hospitality of the facility.

As Director here I have always urged us all to talk to and about others with kindness, courtesy and respect. Of course we don’t always meet that standard when passions of the moment or simple carelessness produce expressions of emotion or judgment that are negative. But if we keep working toward that standard, it helps us know when we have “crossed the line.” If the person we are talking to or about feels harassed or abused or insulted – we probably need to change the way we talk. Here are some examples of free speech that I think ought not happen.

  1. Statements that lump someone in a general group and attaches an insult to the group. For example when we categorize someone as part of a group of people who are “stupid old people” or “dirty homeless guys” or “lazy mexicans” or “dishonest black people” or “incompetent women drivers” or “typical know-it-all men” or “welfare cheats” or “disgusting hippies” or “evil conservatives” or “bleeding heart liberals” or . . . well you get the idea. Genuinely expressing disagreement with someone’s behavior or opinion is fine. Lumping them into a group with an insult is not.
  2. Aggressively asserting your opinion to someone in a continuous barrage of speech that goes on and on, without making space and listening to their point of view and without regard to their expression of disinterest and desire to not engage with you. I see this happen a bit around here. We should be able to come to the Senior Center and go about our business without someone confronting us with a long winded and aggressive speech we aren't interested in. Another way to say it – loud, aggressive speech making in conversational environments is not appropriate.
  3. Then there is that special case of speech from people in authority relative to other people. Sometimes we feel like the “Boss,” either because we really are in charge in some business or organization, or just because we think we know better, and should be in charge. There is an art to “coaching” or “instructing” someone else how to do something, or in communicating action priorities and assignments to team members when we are the supervisor. In the absence of artfulness we resort to yelling, threatening, and demeaning the other person. Saying the same thing only louder seldom works. Speaking to someone like they are stupid or bad seldom improves their behavior, certainly not in the long run. And treating another person like they are your servant, or are an inferior person is harassment and is abusive.

Of course most of us lose it and talk badly sometimes, to someone. Writing guidelines and discussing them helps keep us focused on the way we want to be treated. Then when we blow it and speak badly, the abused person can be empowered to speak up for themselves, and the abuser can more easily realize and say, “sorry, I was out of line, and I’ll do better next time – thanks for pointing that out.” And if you are harassed and feel scared you can ask me or another staff person you feel safe with to help in that conversation.

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