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Delete the Adjectives

By Tim Hayes

“He went through a brief Egyptian Period that baffled me – he tried to walk flat a great deal, sticking one arm in front of him and one in back of him, putting one foot behind the other.  He declared Egyptians walked that way; I said if they did I didn’t see how they got anything done, but Jem said they accomplished more than the Americans ever did, they invented toilet paper and perpetual embalming, and asked where would we be today if they hadn’t?  Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts.”

So says Scout Finch, the young protagonist of the classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  Smart kid, that Scout.  Her father, the heroic attorney Atticus Finch, even smarter.

Delete the adjectives, indeed.  What is it about human nature that compels us to – as one PR professional I knew early on in my career called it – “decorate the truth.”  We hear a story, or a piece of gossip dripping with as much pulpy juice as an overripe peach, and when we repeat it to the next person down the chain, some new wrinkle gets added.  You know, just to make the story a little better, is all.

And the adjectives continue to pile up, as details become more dramatic, more scandalous, more interesting.  But less accurate?  Less fair?  Less worthy of our time and attention, even?

Skirting the facts and shaving the rules came into the sharp, bright, unforgiving light of the law this week, with announcement of a systemic sickness in higher education.  Made a touch more tawdry with the involvement of some C-list celebrities (Aunt Becky?  Say it isn’t so!), the FBI’s massive sting operation exposed a culture among admissions officials, athletic departments, wealthy parents, and others allegedly to ensure that certain candidates got into elite universities with the help of illegal bribes and payoffs.

The ramifications and impact of this scandal have yet to be felt in their full force, but promise to be significant.  And that is as it should be.  You break the law, you pay the consequences.

My fear, however, comes with the realization that this college admissions disaster represents only one symptom of a larger, hopelessly chronic disease.  As law enforcement officials treat the symptom, the disease crashes along its deeply destructive path, immune to any true, lasting cure.  The disease is this – too much of our culture has lost its moral bearings.

Maybe it’s always been this way, but we just didn’t realize how wide and deep the lack of shame, the belief that greed trumps good, the resistance to accept responsibility and shift blame, actually went.  Twitter, Instagram, texting, and all of the other means of immediate communication – combined with an insatiable lust for consumption of titillating information – has ripped the lid off of every malady known to man.  The Seven Deadly Sins, on full display, in living color, 24/7, and all at your fingertips.

Hats off to celebrities who do what they can to resist this seeping, creeping compulsion to drag people into the sewer.  Ellen DeGeneres, for instance, closes her show each day by saying, “Be kind to each other.”

The great Fred Rogers once advised us, “There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind.  The second way is to be kind.  The third way is to be kind.”

Film director Kevin Smith said, “Remember: It costs nothing to encourage an artist, and the potential benefits are staggering. A pat on the back to an artist now could one day result in your favorite film, or the cartoon you love to get stoned watching, or the song that saves your life. Discourage an artist, you get absolutely nothing in return, ever.”

In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” six-year-old Scout watches as Atticus goes to court in 1930s Alabama to defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman.  The jury convicts the man anyway.  In the course of the story unfolding, Scout learns about racism, brutality, and mob rule.  The ugly parts of life that can overtake people so easily, as their allure becomes enhanced and embellished with tempting adjectives.

But she also learns about courage, morality, and love.  The simple, shining parts of life that need no embellishment.  They stand proudly on their own merits.  Their own facts.

Wouldn’t this be a better, safer, happier society if we all followed Atticus’ advice?  Delete the adjectives.  Find the facts.  Live simply.  Be kind to each other.

Copyright 2019 Timothy P. Hayes