The Crimes of the Tongue

The second most deadly instrument of destruction is the dynamite gun [Editor’s Note: this was written before the atomic bomb was invented though the point is still valid],—the first is the human tongue. The gun merely kills bodies; the tongue kills reputations and, ofttimes, ruins characters. Each gun works alone; each loaded tongue has a hundred accomplices. The havoc of the gun is visible at once. The full evil of the tongue lives through all the years; even the eye of Omniscience might grow tired in tracing it to its finality.

The crimes of the tongue are words of unkindness, of anger, of malice, of envy, of bitterness, of harsh criticism, gossip, lying and scandal. Theft and murder are awful crimes, yet in any single year the aggregate sorrow, pain and suffering they cause in a nation is microscopic when compared with the sorrows that come from the crimes of the tongue. Place in one of the scale-pans of Justice the evils resulting from the acts of criminals, and in the other the grief and tears and suffering resulting from the crimes of respectability, and you will start back in amazement as you see the scale you thought the heavier shoot high in air.

At the hands of thief or murderer few of us suffer, even indirectly. But from the careless tongue of friend, the cruel tongue of enemy, who is free? No human being can live a life so true, so fair, so pure as to be beyond the reach of malice, or immune from the poisonous emanations of envy. The insidious attacks against one’s reputation, the loathsome innuendoes, slurs, half-lies by which jealous mediocrity seeks to ruin its superiors, are like those insect parasites that kill the heart and life of a mighty oak. So cowardly is the method, so stealthy the shooting of the poisoned thorns, so insignificant the separate acts in their seeming, that one is not on guard against them. It is easier to dodge an elephant than a microbe.” ~ William George Jordan

The advent of the internet ushered in a new era of communication. It amplified the human voice and in some ways leveled the playing field between those who previously controlled the distribution of information and those who had something to share but didn’t have the means or the access to do so.

With it came a big bang not of matter but of information, although much of what emanated forth was untrue, unreliable and just plain wrong. With it came a new tool for revolutionaries who are now no longer confined by arbitrary geopolitical boundaries. Marketers salivate at the prospect of the gold that is being mined from social media sites where its present and future customers freely and regularly populate the data centers with their likes and dislikes, revealing the networks of friendships and acquaintances they maintain.

In short, the internet magnified the goodness and the evil in the hearts of men around the world while exposing his deepest (and far too often shallowest) thoughts for all to see. Back in the day, the careless tongue of a friend or the cruel tongue of an enemy was limited in its reach and duration. Their vituperation was more often than not delivered openly. This lack of anonymity likely made revolutions more challenging, but they happened nonetheless and from what I can tell, with greater frequency.

Freedom of speech is a wonderful right and rights are certainly an important part of the structure we call civilization. I read today in the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” that:

Rights dominate modern understandings of what actions are permissible and which institutions are just. Rights structure the form of governments, the content of laws, and the shape of morality as it is currently perceived. To accept a set of rights is to approve a distribution of freedom and authority, and so to endorse a certain view of what may, must, and must not be done.

Freedom of speech is the right guaranteed by the free-speech clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution to express beliefs and ideas without unwarranted government restriction. A few people along the way have pushed for unlimited protection, but most jurists, along with most U.S. citizens feel that some restrictions on speech under certain circumstances are acceptable if not necessary.

Another important factor in the swelling controversy over freedom of expression on the internet is well-described in a speech delivered roughly a decade ago by William Fisher to the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. He noted:

The second of the two kinds of background you might find helpful is a brief introduction to the current debate among academics over the character and desirability of what has come to be called “cyberdemocracy.”  Until a few years ago, many observers thought that the Internet offered a potential cure to the related diseases that have afflicted most representative democracies in the late twentieth century: voter apathy; the narrowing of the range of political debate caused in part by the inertia of a system of political parties; the growing power of the media, which in turn seems to reduce discussion of complex issues to a battle of “sound bites”; and the increasing influence of private corporations and other sources of wealth.  All of these conditions might be ameliorated, it was suggested, by the ease with which ordinary citizens could obtain information and then cheaply make their views known to one another through the Internet…

…Recently, however, this rosy view has come under attack.  The Internet, skeptics claim, is not a giant “town hall.”  The kinds of information flows and discussions it seems to foster are, in some ways, disturbing.  One source of trouble is that the Internet encourages like-minded persons (often geographically dispersed) to cluster together in bulletin boards and other virtual clubs.  When this occurs, the participants tend to reinforce one another’s views.  The resultant “group polarization” can be ugly.  More broadly, the Internet seems at least potentially corrosive of something we have long taken for granted in the United States: a shared political culture.  When most people read the same newspaper or watch the same network television news broadcast each day, they are forced at least to glance at stories they might fight troubling and become aware of persons and groups who hold views sharply different from their own.  The Internet makes it easy for people to avoid such engagement — by enabling people to select their sources of information and their conversational partners.

I find this debate fascinating as the outcome will shape the future of democracies everywhere and for many years to come. Moreover, I have a personal stake. The internet has transformed my life in many ways. I am now a genius…well, maybe not, but just about any question I have can be answered with a quick search. I have access to information that easily rivaled that of any King or Emperor in the thousands of years preceding our present era. The goods and services I consume as well as those I put in service through my businesses are all likely made more efficiently and less expensively because of the instantaneous flow of information between suppliers and producers, producers and consumers. I can keep up with friends in ways that I never would have imagined in my youth. And the list goes on…

That said, I am deeply concerned for the future of free speech. I feel that the same protections and limits afforded by the First Amendment to books, magazines and newspapers should be extended to authors and publishers on the internet. I believe as well that we must educate ourselves and our children on this vital topic, including the matter of its limitations.

If the crimes of the tongue and pen are as devastating to humankind as Mr. Jordan so eloquently asserts, they most surely should be considered crimes when posted on the internet, anonymously or not.

Time will tell.

25 thoughts on “The Crimes of the Tongue

  1. Kolya

    This is a very timely subject as”crimes of the tongue” online are an issue for children and adults alike. Online anonymity is a double-edged sword. It can be used as in times past as a pen-name for creative thought and writing or it can be used to hide behind in an attempt to harass or hurt others. Although laws are starting to become tougher due to the abuse of anonymity, it still really comes down to what is in our hearts. Are we willing to hurt and destroy others through careless or intended words? Or, do we care more about nobleness of expression through the words we speak?


  2. One of the ways that we lose privileges is to abuse them. The Free Speech protection that we have is a privilege. Unfortunately, when one abuses a privilege usually many suffer. The recent abuses of the internet will eventually, if not corrected, cause many people to lose the privilege of the internet, at least as we know it today. If we want to avoid legislation then we best learn to police abuse ourselves. And the best way that I know to police the abuse as it now exists is to ignore it – simply do not become involved in it.

    And isn’t it true that when one ignores a ‘bully’, then the bully will leave.

    One of my early lessons had to do with gossip and whether or not I was going to participate in it. Fortunately, I made the decision early on to not participate in it, and my life has been much simpler and productive because of it. Yes, some of my peers might have rejected me etc. but in hindsight it was discovered that they were not true friends anyway. Those who have been wonderful influences in my life would never ask me to stoop to that level of activity!

    So, I guess that my bottom line is simply to make the decision not to get involved with petty gossip regardless of the source, knowing that impeccable and quality sources simply do not engage in that kind of activity.


  3. DGM

    Internet law is the new frontier for the legal system and the legal industry. Just as the drug issues(legal and illegal) in the USA have guaranteed a healthy income for many attorneys, they see their future in copyright, slander, malicious intent,defamation and libel all occurring on the internet. This is not even considering the felonious crimes that are finding their origin from our 24/7 ability to access accomplices. Flash mobs, internet security issues and hacking for profit are pushing the legal industry to specialize in this burgeoning industry. Just as we have taught our children the new safety rules of travel, eating etc. we will soon teach them the rules governing the internet. They are being written as we speak.


  4. Mark Miller

    Your words make it clear there is much I take for advantage without much thought or sense of responsibility. Excellent job outlining our responsibilities on so many levels here.


  5. Colin

    This is a very interesting topic. I think that many people say things on the internet that they would not say to someone’s face. I think that most people would agree that this is because there are no social or legal repercussions for these actions. Short of committing a crime, you can say pretty much whatever you want. The best situation would be if people could learn to control themselves. If that isn’t the case (which it isn’t right now), there should be some rules for internet speech similar to speech in person.


  6. Doug

    The internet has become like the old wild west…shoot first ask questions later. The lawlessness can’t last too long at this rate. The fallout is too great for everyone. The new sheriff is probably likely to be in the form of young attorneys who see the injustice and understand the power of the judicial system. No one likes a bully!
    Thank Gregg this topic is top of everyone’s lists, schools, parents, church, governments and responsible people everywhere.


  7. Coco

    Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh. It always comes down to what is in our heart. Words spoken by us provide the opportunity to listen to what is going on in our hearts. Reading our own words is a unique opportunity to reflect on the contents of our own heart.
    Great post thanks.


  8. James

    Hi Gregg,

    You hit a topic today that means a lot to a lot of people.

    Having given up television in 2009, I can see with a little more objectivity just how subject we all are to subtle or blatant propaganda through that medium, but in the world of the Internet it can be even more skewed.

    Over time, those authors that consistently offer take away value to the reader will prevail, and I continue to appreciate the daily virtue and thought provided on this site. Long may it continue!


      1. James

        Can’t wait to see what that might be! Whatever it looks like, my media choices will be conscious rather than unconscious.


  9. Ricardo B.

    I agree that it is only through a thorough and well balanced education that we can arise out of the state of ignorance that leads people to commit acts of violence. The passions of man need to be tamed or else there is nothing that distinguishes man from beast. Cultivating a rich understanding of our higher nature all through our lives simply needs to be first and foremost, and rights, properly used, are earned through responsible living. To abuse rights and privileges as many do is an abuse of our freedoms and we do not merit living in a free society. Whatever happened to merit and the honor system?
    These questions of ethics need to be answered in today’s world, for it will be difficult to continue to evolve our societies in a safe, healthy and enlightened manner. The world of the Internet is forcing us to look more deeply into these issues and I for one am eagerly anticipating reforms in this area, especially where it comes to anonymity as it tends to bring out the worst in people.
    Thanks for contributing awareness to this vital topic.


    1. Gregg Hake

      I’ve been thinking a lot about the question: “to what do we aspire?” It seems to me that in previous generations this question was more in the forefront in the minds of men. Definitely one worth asking!


  10. Vincent

    This is a tremendously thought-provoking post that inquires into many critical issues. Our words define us in so many ways, and create influence that goes out into the world for good or ill. With the magnification power of the Internet, however, we see such an acceleration of both helpful information and superheated destruction!

    Your door-opening thoughts on the First Ammendment are worth several readings. Concerns about this seem to be at the forefront of so many debates and considerations these days, and rightly so. Without establishing a final judgment as to how things should be legislated, we can surely recognize that words and the response to them constitute the central creative force shaping our world. For each of us, then, conscious care with words both spoken and heard represents the highest order of integrity in living.

    The tongue can either be a weak servant to the dishonest spirits of hatred and destruction or it can be a sentry at the gate, allowing nothing less than generosity, kindness and appropriateness to be given form and flight. After all, we all speak with deliberation, with deliberate intent, even if the intentions are hidden to ourselves sometimes! Here is an absolute core of creative influence!


  11. Beth C.

    I share your concerns about the future of free speech. Rights without reposibility lead to abuse. Eventually then the rights themselves are threatened as efforts are made to restore balance. It is at this juncture that pople will often surrneder basic rights to buy some respite. As the Era of the Internet progresses, we should find the corresponding laws to limit and govern without sacrificing in the end the precious right of free speech.


    1. Gregg Hake

      Well put. We either need laws, education or both. Civility is at a premium these days. Rights can be lost if they are not sufficiently cared for.


  12. MMc

    The lead story on the USA portion of CNN website last night was about was about a town they termed as ” the meanest in America”. The gist is political rivals became embroiled in controversy over approximately $96. alleged misuse of funds. It seems the attack on the person became so vial, so personal, from the local opposing political machine, using the newspaper but especially the anonymous postings on the Internet, the candidate was pushed over the edge, taking her own life after taking her husbands. The article said ” this tragedy came at a time when people around the country are noting the decline of civility in public discourse.” It said this issue is on many peoples minds due to the Jan 8th assassination attempt on Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. I was encouraged by the fact that CNN is highlighting this ” colleratal damage” by anonymous irresponsible postings.
    As the Internet has catapulted the reach of the school bully, jealous rival and sketchy business competitor it will have to be balanced by the scales of our justice system. If you set an event in motion by anonymous words on the Internet they are an accomplice to the crimes carried out. I trust the citizens of the world will sort this misuse out. For centuries crimes during a war was seen as just part of the damage of war, not so anymore. If we hold each other accountable for our actions when bullets fly; we are not far from doing the same for when words fly.
    Thanks Gregg, this issue is vital for the future peace of our planet.


    1. Gregg Hake

      It’s quite scary yet par for the course in much of human history. The tricky part is that the Internet is an amplifier. It intensifies the power and reach of the human voice, for better or for worse. If greater power is not matched with greater restraint and care you end up with a ticking time bomb.


  13. Brad

    You raise a very interesting point.
    My wife and I were recently revisiting an idea we had read from a book on parenting by Kim John Payne – Simplicity Parenting – one of those types of books you open, read a few pages and then let it sink in. I’ve literally spent months “reading” this book and strongly suggest it to anyone who is around children, ever. One point he makes is that we use words perhaps too much, and often with very little thought to what is said. Mr. Payne suggests we try only saying things that are “True, Kind, and Necessary”…think about it – true, kind, and necessary. What if that were our mantra for just a few days – how much of what is said simply wouldn’t be said…and then the words we do choose to share would really make a difference and be heard. Mr. Payne goes on to say that children would be more attentive to the direction/correction that is offered and we would flat out be kinder to one another.
    Take this same idea and apply it to the internet…now there we would have some real content to digest!
    Thanks for bringing this difficult subject to light.


    1. Gregg Hake

      Such an approach to speaking would go a long way to improving the quality of life on our planet and the amount if happiness in the individual life. Thanks for sharing, Brad!


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