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If You Can’t Say Something Nice…

David Langness | Updated Jul 26, 2021

PART 2 IN SERIES Political Correctness

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

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David Langness | Dec 25, 2016

PART 2 IN SERIES Political Correctness

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

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.

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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 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.”

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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.

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  • Annata Even
    Jul 26, 2022
    Great article, I learned a lot of good things about life. A rule of speech worth learning.
  • Haf Gaemer
    Jul 14, 2017
    So when someone does a bad thing.. worthy of comment. Like murders lets say.. is the first guy to suggest he's an asshole is the actual real asshole or is it the guy who just chopped off a sweet old ladies head? If you can't say something thing nice.. keep your mouth shut? What kind of cartoon world are you people living in? Disney, nor your Grandmother's politeness have the solution. The solution is not in refusing to hate or to speak out.. it is in hating and speaking out about the right things.. Go stare at a ...flower, watch clouds change form, contemplate an ant hill.. do something other that requires you to be quiet. Silence really is golden if you can master the art.
  • Steve Eaton
    Dec 26, 2016
    This is such a good article! I do remember Thumper, and how
    ashamed he looked, ears down I
    think, when held accountable! Where are the bold moral teachings
    in entertainment now? Moralizing
    has been taboo for a long time, and
    now we see the results! Even in our
    young adulthood in the rebellious
    1960's, value judgments like Disney
    had made were already considered
    an outdated, restrictive, and actually
    unhealthy nuisance. When those
    young people became parents, they
    didn't have much to provide morally,
    and the standards kept getting lower
    every ...generation. Thank you for
    helping in the renaissance, David!
  • rodney Richards
    Dec 26, 2016
    David, Spot on and I am very much still aware of my own unconscious, sometimes uncontrolled tendency to judge and speak - wrongly. For none of us knows what the next person has been through. Facebook is a perfect example - uplifting or devastating. So I have curtailed my comments greatly depite its delete and edit features in removing a post.
    I still struggle with the Thumper Rule however in all situations. Even the Messengers and others called out and admonished evils. The eye of the beholder and one's moral foundation are always in tension IMO, but the difference is ...the authority to speak out the truth, God-given for the Prophets, versus the right to speak out many persons think they have because of changing social norms.
  • Rosslyn and Steven Osborne
    Dec 26, 2016
    Oh, how many times I have had to 'check' myself when reading a story of heinous cruelty, and about to leave a comment...David!
    After browsing some of those left before I write, I shudder! At times I'd like to add my 'two cents worth', then I ask Baha'u'llah how I should respond. If the entire load of comments are stupidly derogative I will not bother, but so often I am guided to place a quote or seek to understand a full knowledge of a 'story' before I post a comment. Not always easy, but I try.
    So thank you for ...this article David to help me to keep practising to say something nice or to not answer at all. :>)
  • Bob LeBlanc
    Dec 25, 2016
    Thanks for this thoughtful article David. It's good to hear this advice again and you've made my day better!
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