Thimbleful of truth, bucketful of balderdash

[Holocaust Center of Florida Blog, August 30, 2012]

By James Coffin

Mark Twain contended that there are three kinds of lies: “lies, damned lies and statistics.” I’d suggest that the three could also be: lies, damned lies and cliches.

Cliches are succinct, pithy summaries that appear to have cleverly captured the essence of an issue. They imply that the last word has been said. Counter arguments would be futile. No need for further discussion. QED.

Unfortunately, cliches become beliefs. Beliefs lead to actions. And if the original assertion was off the beam, the resultant actions may be devastating. Let me cite an example.

Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the 32nd President of the United States, made a statement that people have fawned over since it first escaped her lips: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Certainly, parents need to help their children learn to shrug off, as much as possible, life’s slings and arrows, insults and putdowns. It’s not a gentle world out there. Not even for adults. So learning not to wear our feelings on our sleeves is an important lesson in real-world survival. This is where the thimbleful of truth in Mrs. Roosevelt’s cliche comes into its own.

The problem is, in today’s world the emotional/psychological assaults faced by many young people–and even by many more adults than we’d like to believe–are intense, incessant and inescapable. Someone would have to be truly super-human not to be dragged down by such an unrelenting onslaught. And often from such a large number of assailants.

As if the taunts and jeers of the bullies haven’t been bad enough, the dismissal by the smug-and-preachy crowd adds to the pain. It “re-victimizes the victim,” as those who understand the issue of bullying describe it.

The original taunts centered on the alleged flaws of the victim. And the purveyors of advice likewise highlight the victim’s alleged flaws. In essence they say, “You’re really the problem. A strong person, a worthy person, would be able to withstand such onslaughts and not be fazed. Remember, ‘no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’”

If Mrs. Roosevelt’s much-quoted cliche is true, there’s no such thing as bullying or abuse. There are only strong and knowledgeable people or weak and stupid people. Based on her statement, the problem isn’t really the perpetrators; the problem lies in the inability of the recipients to withstand whatever life’s villains happen to dish out.

I’d suggest that even the most insensitive among us should recognize Mrs. Roosevelt’s cliche as the destructive bucketful of balderdash that it is.

James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.