“No killer statements”, we agreed would be the first rule we would follow in our time together on a retreat with a group of teenagers and a few adult chaperones. A killer statement was anything that was said that demeaned, dismissed, or denied someone else. Our commitment to the rule stemmed from a recognition that a killer statement could not only destroy the fragile egos of young people who were valiantly trying to mature into adulthood, but could also grievously taint the integrity of the person making the statement.
Arriving at the rule was fairly straightforward. Living it out was another matter, because everyone had witnessed – or had been trained, in the psychic economy of raising oneself up by putting someone else down. And this was years before the internet, which has since become a vehicle for slashing and slandering one another. Managing killer statements has become much harder.
As the list of indictments against former President Trump continue to grow, an ongoing debate has emerged between the sanctity and limit of free speech. The proliferating commentary calls to mind the standard opening question by Senator Howard Baker to witnesses during the Watergate hearings: “What did the President know and when did he know it?” Fifty years later, the question has evolved: “What did the former President say on tape, on Truth Social, at a rally – and is he permitted to say it?” The first amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech…” is being dissected every day on more platforms than we ever knew we had.
It is widely recognized that Mr. Trump weaves lies and killer statements together on a regular basis. His pronouncements outrage some and energize others. Most people agree that his many put-downs and fabrications are ethical transgressions. What is in dispute is whether or not they – and the actions they purportedly encourage, are illegal and warrant criminal and civil charges.
From my perspective, the first amendment gives people the freedom to express their pain. The founders well knew that the first thing shut down in a totalitarian state is people’s freedom to tell their story of struggle, of injustice, of injury, of grief – of pain. They knew that suppression inevitably becomes oppression. The first amendment was written to avoid that probability.
While the first amendment protects people’s ability to share their pain, it doesn’t say much, if anything, about the freedom to verbally inflict pain. It may not, but the Ten Commandments do. The Ten Commandments were given to Moses and his people as they were entering a new experience of freedom – for the first time. After generations of being in slavery, the Jewish people needed some guidelines for how they could live together in community. The last six commandments – honor your parents, do not kill, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet; in effect, no killer statements (or actions) – have become foundational to our western legal system. Don’t hurt one another. One of the exercises we engaged in on those youth group retreats decades ago is to come up with some norms for how people can best get along in community. Invariably they came up with a list that nearly matched those six commandments.
A question before us, as these court cases involving Donald Trump unfold, is whether or not we want to live together in community. And if so, can we refrain from making killer statements out loud? No doubt we will make them silently, because our anger and resentment is being endlessly kindled by the conflict entrepreneurs who show up everywhere.
Some of this is about us versus them. But much of it is about us versus me. Do I have the right to say what I want, even if it is intended to hurt or even psychically maim someone else? Do I have the freedom to own as many guns as I want, bring them wherever and however I want, and use them without challenge?
To my mind, the us versus me is an ongoing battle (yes, battle) for our national soul. It is wrenching. Many of us wish it would just all go away. It won’t. And it shouldn’t. As a people, we need to work this through, hard as it is. Part of the work is to keep our killer statements to a minimum, for they destroy psyches (fragile or not) and eviscerate the integrity of the speaker. We can do better.