Our visceral reaction to being called cowards

US Attorney General Eric Holder (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
US Attorney General Eric Holder (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. called us “a nation of cowards,” afraid to speak frankly to each other about race in America.

In this blog, I won’t discuss whether or not I agree with his assertion. (I do.)

Since this blog is about writing, it’s his use of such a provocative word as “coward” — and the reaction it engendered — that I want us to talk about here.

Is there a lesson we can apply to our own writing?

Let’s say Holder had used the kind of politically correct, passive, “safe” language many of our CEOs try to insist we use. He might have said, “We are a nation of people who are reticent to talk to each other about such sensitive issues as ethnicity.”

Or maybe, “Our hesitancy to offend each other makes honest conversation about some issues difficult.”

Probably a passive sentence would be required: “Discussions of race are not generally accepted as polite conversation.”

If Holder had used any of this language, would we have paid attention? Would any of us be discussing his speech — and, more imporantly, about whether we talk to each other about race? Would the issue have gotten any notice at all?

I say no, it wouldn’t have permeated our consciousness.

So, am I advocating the use of inflammatory language in your organization’s materials?

Not inflammatory, but thought-provoking. Active. Honest. Authentic. Loaded with verbs, and devoid of the passive voice. Only through speaking clearly and honestly will your audiences – customers, donors, clients, etc. — get to know you and your organization.

And only then will they start to remember you.


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