Sage wisdom is often passed from generation to generation. I remember my Dad saying, “If you can’t say anything good, don’t say anything at all.” My grandfather taught him that. My Dad practiced that advice.

If you listen to television or read a newspaper, that adage may seem to be reversed. If you can’t say anything bad, shut up! “Hate speech” seems to be anything that is different from what I think. If I don’t like something you think or say, I can just brand it “hate speech” and dismiss it — and you! But apparently this is not news to our generation. Shakespeare’s lasting truth says:

“Good name in man and woman, dear my lord, is the immediate jewel of their souls,

Who steals my purse, steals trash; ’tis something, ‘tis nothing.

‘Twas mine; ‘tis his and has been slave to thousands;

But he who filches from me my good name, robs me of that which not enriches him

And makes me poor indeed.”

Robbery is the act of stealing a good name by Shakespeare, but I would suggest having our children hear us do that is much more serious, although often subtle. How many of us challenge the truthfulness of gossip and too often pass it along? In 1993, Dear Abby printed a response from a reader: “My mother, who lives in Sweden, used to be very critical of all the family – but always behind their backs. Any relative visiting her had to listen to endless bad-mouthing of ‘what’s wrong with so-and-so.’ One of her grandsons came to visit her. As she began her usual criticizing, he said, ‘Now Grandma. You have twenty minutes to say nasty things about all the people I love, and then we are going to talk about pleasant things.’ She never used her twenty minutes to bad-mouth anybody. In fact, she changed dramatically; and today is the sweetest 90 year old you can imagine.”

Gossip, rumors, false accusations, even lies are too easily allowed to take on a life independent of truth. Morgan Blake, an AJC sportswriter, wrote succinctly:

“I am more deadly than the screeching shell of the cannon. I win without killing. I tear down homes, break hearts, wreck lives. I travel on the wings of the wind. No innocence is strong enough to intimidate me, no purity pure enough to daunt me. I have no regard for truth, no respect for justice, no mercy for the defenseless. My victims are as numerous as the sands of the seas and often as innocent. I never forget and seldom forgive. My name is gossip.”

That’s the problem. Is there a solution? Could our children learn a better aspiration? Here are some questions we can ask ourselves and teach our children to ask to slow gossip and stop hate speech:

♦ What is your reason for telling me this? Widening the circle of gossip and lies only compounds the problem.

♦ Where did you get your information? Refusal to identify the source is a sure sign of a suspicious or unfounded rumor.

♦ Have you checked this out with those directly involved? Our maturity is not measured by how we expose an offender but by how effectively we help work to correct a problem or heal a division.

♦ Have you personally checked out the facts? Even facts can be distorted when shared with negative motives.

♦ Can I quote you if I check this out?

If the one who reports it to you will not answer these five questions, your response should be to stop the tale in its tracks.

With the internet and other electronic communications, a tale can quickly travel through many modifications. I heard the saying when I was young, “A lie travels around the world while the truth is putting on its boots.” It’s old but true.

Especially when we hear something questionable, it’s time to ask: would I want a friend to check out a comment about me? If so, I need to be careful what I share without knowing the truth of what I’m saying. Shakespeare was right. I have a great treasure in a good name!

Dr. James E. Kilgore retired as the president of the International Family Foundation Inc. and is a Canton resident.

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