It is the mark of the kind-hearted soul to avoid hurtful words whenever possible. And it is the measure of a society to care when someone hurts. If you recall, there is a parable about the penitent, guilt stricken because his words had injured another. Seeking the advice of the sage, the supplicant was told to take the feathers from a pillow and place one on each doorstep in the village, signifying the number of people who had heard the slander. After completing this task, the gossip returned to the wise man for further instruction. Told to gather up every feather again, he protested: "Surely the wind has blown the feathers where I cannot find them!" "And so carry your words, my friend," he was gently reminded.
Wit and slander are divided at times by a razor-thin line. Do you ever hear friends banter back and forth with outrageous insults? We all toss off these little barbs in good fun, the idea being to make the insult so completely unbelievable as to ensure that we are not misunderstood. If we know (and love) one another well enough, we know how to avoid the truly sensitive issues and the soft spots in each others' psyche. Occasionally, we overstep and feelings are hurt, but if we are good friends, we make amends and exercise the discretion in the future which good friendship expects. We have known people who use a fine-tuned wit to injure without regard, and we eventually learn to exclude them or avoid them. The damage from such thoughtlessness can be extensive and most people of good conscience are uncomfortable in its presence.
Public wit becomes a little trickier. Take for example, the celebrity "roast." People who are friends, family and close colleagues of an honoree are assigned to deliver speeches that have the dual object of displaying the good nature of the mark, and conveying their sincere respect and affection. This is done (paradoxically) by lampooning them almost without mercy. The effect, when done right, is meant to be light-hearted and humorous but with a clear undertone of high regard. These occasions are meant to be fun: to convey honor without all the cloying and fussy praise. Once in a while, we cringe at some point which the honoree seems to take in stride, illustrating the very small margin for error.
I cannot say what it is of human nature that we entertain ourselves this way. But as a society becomes more sophisticated, or in other words more worldly, this type of wit becomes a sort of verbal game of "chicken," where the weak are offended and the strong become verbal bullies.
I reflect on this because of an article I read in a recent Time magazine. I don't think it is necessary to pinion the author. It is an author who, in fact, I have admired in the past. On the very off chance he reads this post, he may know of my general regard. He will also know that he stepped over this line as surely as much of his readership knew it. In the article, entitled My Own Private India, this well-respected writer used language that made me gasp: he spoke of one ethnic group in terms so breathtakingly unflattering that there was no turn-around place, no redemption. In a roast, the speaker may say a few outrageous things but culminate in a generous and thoughtful conclusion. I nervously waited for this turn-around, but it never came.
We see that hurtful speech has a private voice and a public voice. In this case, I wonder if a public voice occasionally chooses art over better judgment and becomes a little too removed from the personal impact of his words. Speaking aloud in a populated room, it is too late to depend on those gasping sounds to let us know when we have erred. Even worse, when we are alone and groping for the witty and urbane, it is hard to trust our own echo.