IN FOCUS: Words we say really do matter

The words you choose are important. However, the words you say are much more important.

Most regular readers of this column have likely heard about the controversy involving a Rochester television meteorologist, who uttered a racial slur during a live broadcast. He was quickly fired, and the station contends that the decision to fire him happened before Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren called for his termination. Warren also questioned the intent of local media, referencing another piece published by the Democrat & Chronicle, in which a City Court judge’s residency was called into question. She asserted that cultural competency training was needed across the board. The Mayor also invited local media to a not-yet-official event, where this issue would be discussed.

Plenty has been said and written about regarding the meteorologist’s dismissal. His response — including insisting what he said was an accident — has been heavily criticized. The story has evolved into a national one with coverage coming from the likes of the “Today Show” and more. The meteorologist received some support from high-profile media folks who weighed in.

Another incident unfolded in the days following that involved Gov. Andrew Cuomo during an “impromptu gaggle” with the press. An aide asked that reporters give the Governor some space, to which he quipped, “I’ll bring you all up on charges under the ‘Me Too’ movement.” The following day Gov. Cuomo doubled down on the statement after receiving pushback from those critical of the statement. Some outlets across the state ran stories highlighting the irony of his #MeToo joke, coming the same day Andrea Stewart-Cousins was installed as the first female majority leader of the Assembly.

“I think it was an off-hand comment,” the Governor said in a radio interview on Thursday. “I walked into the gaggle and I was assaulted.” He talked about how reporters’ equipment had hit “all parts” of his anatomy. Many folks were not satisfied with that response.

In these two incidents, we have highlighted some of our society’s most difficult and controversial issues — racism and gender inequality. All the side issues that intersect with these two stories, which have gained a lot of momentum, highlight the odd crossroads we have arrived at in society.

The dismissed meteorologist argued that he intended not to offend anyone and that he was not racist at heart. It was a simple mistake, he contended. However, we hear repeatedly that words can hurt people, they do carry consequences, and despite intent, a reaction should be expected when an error occurs.

First off, it would appear that in comparing these two situations, there’s a level of understanding and compassion missing from all parties involved. Mistakes do happen, and making the assumption that intent is the only thing that matters is a reach. In Gov. Cuomo’s case, he seems to be as guilty as some have branded the meteorologist for his lack of understanding about the scope of his comments or the impact of those words.

Secondly, these two situations have exposed differing reasons for why we so desperately need a better method to handle challenges like them when they crop up in our communities.

When the meteorologist was fired, a social media firestorm occurred, and that can follow a person even if they take all the necessary steps to redeem themselves or correct truly reprehensible behavior. When the Governor made his #MeToo remark, despite more coverage than usual, it was largely glazed over. He was free to double-down without meaningful consequence.

As a society — and as individual communities — we need to find the balance between the two responses. We need to do a better job of making sure that actual education occurs and that we de-politicize these issues, which quickly become politically charged. If we want to address the concerns at hand, then we need to get back to basics and address the fundamentals. Whether it’s an elected official, a private employee at a local company or a local broadcaster, the answer is inherently communal: Discussion, education, and proactive behaviors that actually generate change.

This is particularly the case in small communities, where creating change and having these discussions is decidedly easier. We all choose words, but the things we say matter, too. And sometimes the two will simply not reconcile.

This column was originally published in the Finger Lakes Times on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019.

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