As I am writing this, I am flying somewhere over the Mid-Atlantic States on my way to South Carolina. My cousin, Joe Ferrarese, just died at the age of 97. He is survived by his wife Palma who is 99 years of age. They have been married for over 72 years. They have four adult children.
Joe was in the Air Force and fought in World War II. He has a very interesting history that I only learned when we attended the funeral of his brother, Al, a number of years ago. He was always very circumspect about his accomplishments, but I managed to ask the right questions. After the War, he became a commercial pilot. Then, as a member of the FAA, he helped draft the airport protocols dealing with weather related dangers. He was active until only a few years ago. At that time, he was diagnosed as suffering from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
He always struck me as a very independent and intelligent member of my family. His humble silence about all that he did in his life spoke volumes to me about his personal dignity and prudence.
One day at a meal with my extended family, one of his children used the word ‘hate’ referring to the food. He calmly looked up from his plate and said, “Hate is a very strong word. You better be careful when you use it.” I must have been 5 or 6 at the time. It is still lodged in my mind both because of its wisdom and because of this era we live in where intemperate language is used all the time.
People jump to the use of the word racist, Nazi, fake, etc. It is a malady of both the political right and the political left. There is usually a less inflammatory expression one can use rather than tarnishing someone’s reputation. Once the word is out, you can never retrieve it. It does its harm and no one can heal a person’s name once he or she is called something.
Speaking a harming word is bad enough, but putting it in print, where it can hurt someone’s reputation in many instances and with many people, is so much more serious. Even worse: when it is in the virtual world of the internet where it can be viewed by millions! For when you put something online, it can never be retrieved since privacy on the internet is virtually (excuse the pun!) impossible.
Morally, we are responsible for every word we speak or write, both good and bad. If it is a harmful word, we can destroy someone. Some of the suicides among young people are connected with the vicious use of the internet by bullies who seek to denigrate and belittle them. In the hands of the immature, it can be lethal.
Hate speech and the use of technology to spread this venom is a serious moral issue. I believe that when it is done with full knowledge it can be a mortal sin, severing the relationship one has with Almighty God! There is nothing more serious in life.
This is true whether the information is true or false. Spreading something damaging about someone that is true is the sin of detraction. If it is false, it is the sin of slander. Both acts are acts of murder—the killing of someone’s reputation.
One often hears of the need for transparency. Such can be an important part of finding the truth. Certainly in issues that deal with finances or moral responsibilities, transparency is key and must be respected. I am not speaking of this, but of the normal dealings we have with one another. When we know something about someone that we want others to know or even when we feel we have to share things about ourselves that seem to be just as easily kept within a small circle of friends, do we have to be ‘transparent’? Do all people have a right to that knowledge? Is anything to be kept private anymore? Has Facebook changed reality?
What I am calling for is the virtue of prudence. Like my cousin in his instruction of one of his children, we have to carefully consider what we say or write so that no one is hurt, even unintentionally by a careless word. We can’t control those in public office or anyone for that matter; but we must control ourselves. Once the word is spoken with prudence, God makes it more effective.