Who remembers “the Thumperian Principle,” also known as “Thumper’s Rule?” If you ever saw the Disney film Bambi, you already know the answer.
In the movie, Thumper the young rabbit remarks, in a loud voice, that the fawn Bambi “is kinda wobbly” and that “he doesn’t walk too good.” Thumper’s mother and father—two much wiser rabbits—tell him “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”
If you were raised the way I was, you instantly recognize that principle.
My grandmother must’ve told me “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” five hundred times as I grew up, as she attempted to teach me to be courteous and kind to others. I take that back—at least a thousand times. I can still hear her gentle admonitions ringing in my ears, although she went on to her eternal reward many years ago, God rest her sweet soul.
To her, no one had any right to speak in a derogatory way about anyone else—it just wasn’t done where she came from. If you did ever insult, backbite or somehow offend another person, she believed, an immediate apology was in order—and then, a period of somber reflection to consider what gross defect in your character would make you would want to purposely hurt someone else’s feelings. She believed that people with what she called “good breeding” simply didn’t ever proactively try to hurt others—and that when they did, it constituted a major spiritual flaw. It didn’t matter if you did it intentionally or not—what mattered, she taught me, was the inner quality of kindness and how I practiced it.
So as I grew up, I came to think of Thumper’s Rule as a kind of verbal Golden Rule. I quickly learned, as most kids do, that a person’s words can do actual harm to others—and to themselves. Your words, Grandma taught me, can be weapons. You’ve heard of karma—the idea that all your actions, good and bad, eventually come back to you? Well, Thumper’s Rule describes a kind of verbal karma, which tells us it’s our job to keep what we say positive, truthful and kind; unless, sooner or later, we want to hear things that aren’t so kind repeated right back to us.
Thumper’s Rule taught me that if I have something to say, I need to first internally ask myself whether it will hurt or insult or injure anyone. I haven’t always managed to faithfully follow that rule—sorry, Grandma—but I’ve tried. When I became a Baha’i as a teenager, and began to read the Baha’i writings, I discovered that powerful rule of verbal karma all over again. The Baha’i teachings express that kindly behavioral admonition even more strongly than I’d ever heard it before:
Should any soul become the cause of grief to any heart or despondency to any soul, it is better for him to hide himself in the lowest strata of the earth than to walk upon the earth. Should any soul desire the abasement of his kind, undoubtedly his non-entity is better for him, for his non-existence is better than his existence and his death better than his life.
Therefore, my advice to you is, endeavour as much as ye can to show kindness toward all men, deal with perfect love, affection and devotion with all the individuals of humanity. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 1, p. 2.
Yikes! When I first read that, I thought back on all the times I’d heedlessly violated that verbal Golden Rule, and I cringed inwardly. You’ve heard the expression “I felt like crawling into a hole”? Well, as I thought about the hurtful things I’d said in the past, whether consciously or unconsciously, I truly did feel like hiding myself “in the lowest strata of the earth.”
Which brings me to the idea of political correctness and our insult-laden cultures. Some people blame social media for the rampant spread of “insult culture,” but it certainly existed before we had Facebook and Twitter. Some point to the friction caused by our increasing diversity and heterogeneity as the proximal cause; but insults and put-downs have been around much longer than those societal trends. Some would say that insulting others, especially those on the opposite side of a social issue or a political battle, is somehow cathartic, “truth-telling” or a way to vent our frustrations.
That happened to a friend of mine on Facebook the other day. He posted something kind and thoughtful on the issue of racial unity; and someone who read it called him a nasty anatomical name I won’t repeat, in print and in public. Others challenged the insulter on his use of the epithet, but he said, in effect: “Hey—it’s how I feel, so too bad if you’re offended. In fact, I hope you are.”
What has brought us to this stage in the development of human society? Are we losing the kindness and politeness—the basic regard for others—that we were all (or at least some of us) taught as children? Are we descending quickly into a dark pit of anger, calumny and open hostility toward people who don’t agree with us?
In this series of essays, I’d like to challenge the notions that have led us to believe such things, and humbly ask that we all consider stopping the verbal and written carnage we see every day now on social media, in the press and in the open human interactions we all encounter. Ungoverned by any constraints, we tend to descend to that lowest level the Baha’i teachings describe, insulting one another until we begin to sound like first-graders on the playground, saying “You stink!” and “No, you stink!”
Our public discourse, rather than elevating itself to new levels of intelligence and insightfulness, has begun to descend far below the gutter, into the lowest strata of the earth.
That’s how wars begin—first the insults, then the anger, then the shouting, and then the killing.