For many, March signals the start of spring cleaning. Experts claim spring cleaning can make you happier, healthier, more productive and reduce stress. During March, not only was I cleaning my home, I also have been working to clean up my speech. No, not removing expletives. Rather, cultivating a habit of constructing positive speech and removing negative speech in my everyday reactions.
Most people would agree that our country and our world is being torn apart by anger, division, hate and strife. According to the Clean Speech movement, the way we speak is both the problem and the solution.
The Clean Speech movement began in Colorado with Rabbi Raphael Leban, who launched the program in 2019. Leban became distressed at the increasingly angry discourse he observed in real life and online. Since 2019, more than 50,000 people in the U.S. and across the globe have participated. The idea began to embrace the ancient Jewish principle of shmirat halashon, or “guarding the tongue.” The goal is to teach people to use their words wisely.
This year marks the first year for Clean Speech St. Louis, where I work. For 30 days, participants were encouraged to take a few minutes a day to think about mindful speech and focus on uplifting positive speech. Every morning a short video lesson and action item arrives in your email inbox.
Clean Speech is chock-full of lessons about judging people favorably, talking about the idea and not the people, and walking away from a conversation if the speech becomes negative. The movement also reminds participants that the Bible tells us to “Love your neighbor as yourself” and to think about the words you are about to say and ask yourself, would I want someone to say that about me? If the answer is no, then don’t say it.
Perhaps the most important takeaway was learning to be mindful of the power of words and to recognize that negative speech can hurt others. Negative speech to an extreme is propaganda. Propaganda is the dissemination of information, whether it be facts, arguments, rumors, half-truths or lies, to influence public opinion. Most propaganda seeks to vilify another person or group of people. We can see and hear examples of propaganda in real time with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
While I think the Clean Speech movement is helping individuals change their personal behavior, I developed an impatience or frustration that society cannot seem to clean up speech on a grander scale.
Clean Speech is clear that the goal is not to muzzle free speech. But incentives are in place for media and social media to reward negative speech. This contributes to the spread of disinformation and polarization, exacerbates divisions, and encourages a sense of social grievance.
One remedy is to hold each other, our leaders and organizations accountable for negative speech. Here are two examples, one big and one small, of individuals holding their colleagues accountable for their negative speech:
In November 2021, two longtime, conservative Fox News contributors, Stephen Hayes and Jonah Goldberg, resigned from the network over Tucker Carlson’s special, “Patriot Purge.” Hayes told a New York Times reporter, “It will lead to violence.” The two left Fox News over the network’s unwillingness to course correct.
Last week, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, spewed negative speech in the form of questions during Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing. Immediately following, while the hearing was still taking place, Cruz was caught looking at Twitter mentions on his phone. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., responded to his fellow Republican, saying, “I think we should recognize that the jackassery we often see around here is partly because of people mugging for short-term camera opportunities.”
Individuals like Goldberg, Hayes and Sasse should be applauded for their efforts to call out negative speech.
Clean Speech is teaching communities how to be mindful with their speech and build a more positive, respectful and peaceful world, which is sorely needed.