Monday, January 13, 2020

Ruth Krall, "Bearing Witness, Part Two — Speaking Truthfully"

Vincent van Gogh, "The Good Samaritan," original in the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, The Netherlands, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons for online sharing.

With this posting, we're nearing the end of Ruth Krall's invaluable, thought-provoking essay series entitled "Compassionate Peacemaking: Healing the World's Wounds One at a Time," with the first part of the series comprised of four essays under the title "Part One: Bearing Witness." This is the fourth essay in the "Bearing Witness" set of essays, and is entitled "Bearing Witness, Part Two —Speaking Truthfully."

I'm posting this final essay in Ruth's essay series in two pieces. The first half of "Bearing Witness, Part Two — Speaking Truthfully." Endnotes begin with xliii because this essay is a continuation of previous essays in the series, the previous one in the series being here and here. Ruth's essay follows:

Compassionate Peacemaking: Healing the World's Wounds One at a Time

Part One: Bearing Witness

Bearing Witness, Part Two — Speaking Truthfully

Ruth Elizabeth Krall, MSN, PhD

Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

Baptist Minister Martin Luther King, Jr., 1929-1968 (xliii)

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe.  The arc is a long one.  My eye reaches but a little way.  I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience or sight.  I can divine it by conscience.  And from what I see, it bends toward justice.

Unitarian Abolitionist Minister Theodore Parker, 1810-1860 (xliv)

A Prohibition

Do not bear false witness against your neighbor. (xlv)

I want to continue this discussion of bearing witness with a prohibition. Bearing witness as a form of speaking out is not the same as gossiping. It is not the same as spreading rumors. It is not the same as idle chatter. It is not the same as character assassination. It is not even the same as angry bitching to our friends and family members. There is no accountability in gossiping. There is no accountability in a free-roaming bitch session. And there is little trustworthiness as well. In addition, when we gossip carelessly and/or maliciously about the actual or hypothetical moral and ethical failures of others, we reveal our personal lack of compassion. As much as I personally enjoy political cartoons that skewer hypocrisy and malfeasant behavior done by elected officials or other politically powerful individuals inside my nation-state, I live under no illusions that my enjoyment of well-aimed and barbed sarcasm makes me a change agent in a world of injustice. Nor, does it even make me a grown-up.

The Powerlessness of Gossip

When I was a young child — about age nine or ten — my father warned me about one of our town's gossips. This may be the first time I heard the word gossip applied to a person. He is a gossip, Betsy. Do not tell him anything you don't want the whole town to know. In addition, he sometimes spreads gossip about people that is not true. Do not believe everything that he tells us. Do not spread his rumors with your friends. His kind of gossiping behavior can hurt people. It is not kind, it is not fair, and it is not honest.

Long after our neighbor's death, this is what I remember about my dad's earliest warning instruction about the harmfulness of rumor-mongering and gossip. Unlike outright lying, gossip is lodged in the borderlands between truth-telling and lying. Gossip purveyors may or may not care about these fragile boundaries between truth and lying. They may not even know the difference. Hearing their tales, we need to be skeptical and we need to be paying attention.  In the gossip’s stories factual truth may be interwoven with misleading innuendo, malicious rumors, and outright falsehoods.  

In my adult life I have found my father's instructive warning to be very useful. It helped me in my earliest professional years when I was taught the meaning of and the necessity for professional confidentiality. Knowing what should not be shared with others without being given explicit permission has helped me to create and maintain life-long friendships. It enabled me to be an effective program administrator.

There is harmless gossip — social information-sharing which actually builds community. Did you hear the news? Mary and Sam's son got accepted into Harvard. Another variation is this: I am calling you on Sam's behalf: Mary has just been diagnosed with breast cancer. They want their closest friends to know but just now can't bear talking about this news with others. They need time to absorb the news and to make medical decisions. Still another version goes something like this: November 1st is Mary's fifth anniversary of her cancer surgery. I am planning a small celebratory woman-friendly lunch party for her at Wolfgang Puck's Spago restaurant. Sam agrees we can keep this a secret from her and he will help us with our planning. Save the date. More details will follow.

Knowing one's friends, acquaintances, and professional colleagues allows us to make personal judgments about what is appropriate information to share and about what is intrusive, malicious, and harmful. It gives us a window into the difference between compassionate and loving truthfulness and malicious and harmful gossiping.

Some information is sensitive — such as a friend being fired from her job; the break-up of a marriage by a separation; or a son being diagnosed with the HIV virus. Here it is important to make an informed judgment about (1) what details can be shared with whom and (2) when it is appropriate to share such information as well as when it is not.

My own sense of this through the years has been that it is better to err on the side of caution when we share others' personal information with our friends, business colleagues, and casual acquaintances. If we intuit or know outright that we are being given information that might be confidential and/or sensitive, the wisest course of action is to keep the trust of our friends and colleagues by asking ourselves who knows this information and/or who needs to know. The wisest course of action is to clarify this with the individual him or herself.

When I was a teenager, my dad talked with me one day about confidentiality and gossiping. This time the context was the dinnertime conversation of my parents. I no longer remember the specific context but his instruction went something like this. Because of my job, Betsy, I know confidential information about many people. I sometimes hear gossip I know to be unkind, untrue or inaccurate. I can't ethically correct this misperception or faulty information. I cannot share what I know because what I know to be true is confidential. My policy is simple: I never pass this gossip along to others. I may or may not let the subject of gossip know what is being said about them. This is an ethical judgment call that I must make for myself. People do have a right to defend themselves against lies being told about them. But because of my job and/or the originator of the gossip it may not be possible for me to correct this injustice.  

As a late adolescent on the brink of adult life, the instruction about gossip and confidentiality became even more precise: As you know, I use your mother as a confidential sounding board. We talk about details of my work and she is my sounding board for decisions I must make. You are now often allowed to overhear these conversations and I may even ask you for your opinion. You must never talk about these conversations with others. That is the meaning of confidentiality: you know things other people do not know and you do not talk about them with others.  

As I matured throughout late adolescence and into young adult life, my dad not only sought out my mom's opinions; he increasingly engaged me in conversations about what I thought about the daily news or about the issues he was facing at work. Occasionally, he assumed I was wiser and more mature than I was. I remember him asking me about a potential hire — and what I thought about a candidate we both knew. I was in way over my head; I was very uncomfortable with the question. I didn't want to betray my classmate or harm her opportunities for employment even as I wanted to please my dad by appearing smarter than I was. I was old enough to hear my inner caution about this conversation. I simply said, "I don't know, Daddy, what you should do here. She is a very nice person but I don't really know her all that well." I was not yet mature enough to say, That question is inappropriate and it makes me very uncomfortable. It puts me in a space I don’t want to be in. So, I told my dad the truth, but I told it slant. In short, I verbally punted.

First-Nation Wisdom

Many years ago I read an essay by Anne Cameron — the Canadian poet, essayist and fiction writer. (xlvi) She has a first-nation identity. For many years, I have remembered Cameron's essay: it deeply affected me when I first read it. In the decades since then, it has often affected my decision-making choices about so-called "wanting-to-be-helpful" gossip. In her chapter-length essay Cameron described a women's story-telling circle.  Here is Cameron's cautionary wisdom as she begins her essay:

It is the custom of the People that when a story has been told, it belongs to the one who told it, not the one or ones who heard it. Nobody would tell a story not given to her, the sin of it is too great. And so it is, a storyteller tells a story and if she does not say, "and now you can tell the story," you must never repeat it, but hold it in your heart, and cherish it, consider it, think about it, learn from it. For a story is like a flower, a precious fragility in itself, and you may take apart that flower and examine it, and you might perhaps press it between the pages of a book, if you have one, or you may store it dried, in a potpourri jar, but what you have is no longer the flower, it has become something else altogether, and so it is with a story.  Told without permission the story loses its magic benefit and becomes only a lie and a stolen lie at that. And so I ask you, with these stories, hold them in your heart as you would the memory of a flower, but do not take them for your own, nor repeat them, nor presume to teach them or demonstrate by your appropriation how great the gap is between us, for if you take what is not given, you demonstrate only how much you have not learned, you demonstrate how far you have to travel to be worthy of having the stories given to you. (xlvii)

In Cameron’s story circle no woman told another woman’s story without being given explicit permission. Telling someone else’s story without permission brought shame to the woman whose theft of her colleague’s or friend’s story became known in this particular group of women. The story that did not belong to her was a story she was ethically or spiritually or culturally prohibited from telling. The story belonged to the woman who first told the story. This was not a matter of copyright protection.  It was, however, a matter of personal integrity and a matter of personal honor between and among these women.


xliii. Martin Luther King, Jr.. "Quotes, Martin Luther King, Jr." Ignatian Solidarity Network.  

xliv. Smith, M. D. (January 18, 2018). "The Truth About 'The Arc of the Moral Universe.'"  Huffington Post. 

xlv. Paraphrase of Exodus 20:16.

xlvi. Cameron, A. (1986). "Magic in a World of Magic." Zahavia, I. (Ed.), Hear the Silence: Stories by Women of Myth, Magic, and Renewal. Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press. Pp. 1-33.

 xlvii. Ibid, p. 2. 

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