To be sure, there is no inoffensive way to express the racist and divisive message Barr seems to have wanted to share. But many more accidental offenses – tens of thousands of them a day, perhaps hundreds of thousands – occur because too many people lack respect for the potency of the written word and wield words with careless disregard for their impact on the reader.
To put this in a more mundane context, I contend that individuals in conflict should always air their grievances in person rather than in writing. Bosses wishing to scold employees – and, above all, employees wishing to express grievances with their bosses – should always prize direct personal contact over the distance of a written memo. Personal interactions provide all kinds of tonal and physical cues that require special attention to include in written words. It may be less comfortable to deal with complex, emotional subjects face to face, but, without an extreme level of awareness and care, it will almost always be more productive and less prone to unintended misinterpretation.
George Carlin sagely realized that the purpose of emails is “to communicate with those who you don’t want to talk to.” People shy away from uncomfortable settings, and written communication provides what feels like the safety of distance. In the years since Carlin’s death, tweets, text messages, Facebook posts and more have added to the comforts available from that distance and to the sense of confidence many people have in distributing across the vast realm of cyberspace whatever thoughts rush through their heads.
This is dangerous business. Whole tomes are published these days about the extent to which the tone of our public conversations is being contaminated by social media. I’m personally not convinced that a thorough and objective analysis would demonstrate that we’re any worse at getting along today than we’ve ever been, but there is no arguing the truth that words wielded indifferently or recklessly can produce unintended interpretations that thwart rather than promote our goals.
Only Roseanne Barr can say what the ultimate goal of her offensive tweet was, and its problem is not a question of interpretation. But the controversy she incited can remind all of us not only to be careful about the ideas we decide to share in public forums but also to be aware of the singular responsibility we assume when we choose to express ourselves in writing.