It is apparent that effective communication, both written and spoken, can be an asset in our lives, as well as to those who depend on us, and those who learn from us. Improper communication can have an equal and opposite negative effect. I’m often amazed, and disheartened, at comments made on written communication venues of the modern age like email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Usually they are shared within a closed body of people, and the intent is for it to stay there, but that is not always how things work. I’ve told my daughters, and advice I’ve given to colleagues is, don’t say anything, and especially don’t share anything on digital media, that you wouldn’t want to see on the evening news.
I’ve always believed that if an individual could learn to talk to both children and adults effectively, it would be an indication that they were becoming a fair communicator. I also think we need to take the same care in speaking with adults as we would our own kids. Effective communication is an asset, hurtful communication in any form can be damaging, and can live on forever. Whether you are writing or speaking, communication is tough, and speaking out for what you believe is an intimidating mission for some people. It should be something we’re applauded for, and not something we regret saying. History is full of people who’s written or spoken word made a difference, but if you follow digital media, current news is full of people criticized for what they’ve said or written, in many cases for things they never meant to be public. Communicating what you believe is great, but applying it in a manner not designed to cause offense is best.
One of the most popular writers of children’s books was Elwyn Brooks (E.B.) White. You may not have heard of him, but I’m sure you have his classics. Beginning in 1929, E.B. White worked for the New Yorker’s weekly magazine writing editorials. He also wrote and edited a column called “One Man’s Meat” for Harper’s magazine. Those collected essays were published in 1942. In 1939, the Whites moved to a farm in North Brooklin, Maine, where E.B. continued to write. He said the animals in his barn gave him ideas. While living in Brookline, E.B. published his three most famous books: Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan. He began Stuart Little in the hope of amusing a six-year-old niece of his, but before he finished it, she had grown up.
E.B. White won many awards for his writing, including a special Pulitzer Prize in 1978. He also held honorary degrees from 7 American colleges and universities. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy named Mr. White as one of thirty-one Americans to receive the Presidential Medal for Freedom. The beloved creator of children’s classics died on October 1, 1985, of Alzheimer’s disease. I could not help but wonder why a writer of children’s book would receive the Presidential Medal for Freedom, so I did some research. What I found caused me to have a great deal of respect for a man who could communicate with children and adults with equal ideals of value, obligation, caring, and freedom. I also realized with more clarity that communicating with adults requires many of the same techniques as communicating with children. One of those techniques is gaining their attention, another is being sincere, and lastly being sensitive to their feelings. I was also reaffirmed in the notion that if we didn’t have people who were willing to speak out, then so many things about freedom would change.
In 1939 as World War II raged in Europe and Germany scored victory after victory, the American response was one of ambivalence. An ocean away people could not see how the German conquest of Europe could affect them. Although President Roosevelt felt Germany a threat, he had little success in making the country see it his way. E. B. White, serving as an editor with The New Yorker, saw many people accommodating their views to German success and scoffing at the sad state of our own country. Repulsed by their attitudes he wrote a column in the New Yorker titled “I Am In Love With Freedom”. In it he accounts many of the conversations he heard regarding American attitudes before it’s involvement in the war. In hindsight his views seem so obvious, but reading the article you see that he was, at the time, stating a daring point of view during a time where most of America wanted to ignore the fascism occurring in Europe. In the article he said; “I am in love with freedom and I am deeply suspicious of people who are beginning to adjust to fascism and dictators merely because they are succeeding in war.” We read so much about our countries efforts to stop Hitler, yet so little about those who prompted our country to take those steps. In reading a reprint of his article I found it incredibly hard to believe that this man, so forceful in his writing, so idealistic in his presentation, was in fact the same writer of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. I’m thankful for his children’s classics, and his willingness to use his ability to communicate to speak out when he believed something.
One of the early truths that Hitler disclosed in his book Mein Kampf was his early recognition that it is not the written word, that in heated moments moved great masses, but the spoken word. “I know”, wrote Hitler, “that one is able to win people far more by the spoken word than the written word. For let it be said to all knights of the Pen and to all political dandies, especially of today: the greatest changes in this world would have never been brought about by a goose quill.” Oddly enough, it was in some part E. B. White’s written word that aroused in many Americans a distain for what was occurring in Europe. In his article E. B. White responded to Hitler’s assertion with the following statement: “Being myself a Knight of the goose quill, I am under no misapprehension about “winning people;” but I am inordinately proud these days of the quill, for it has shown itself, historically, to be the hypodermic that inoculates men and keeps germs of freedom always in circulation, so that there are individuals in every time in every land who are the carriers… These persons are feared by every tyrant – who shows his fear by burning the books and destroying the individuals.”
E.B. White wrote children’s books, yet he helped change the course of history. It reminds me that whether talking to children, or communicating with adults, ideals and sincerity are critical issues and we must never underestimate the power of communication. If I am ever recognized for a quote, I would be satisfied with this one. “People who are willing to listen have only the choice of hearing those who choose to speak”. In our age, as in all ages past, those who represent justice, freedom, and fairness must be willing to speak. In reality the need to voice your opinion is much less dramatic than defending justice, yet that is the only way to insure that democracy represents the masses. Without that commitment, our lives and future may be altered by inappropriate communication, because that is all there is. As an individual in a free society, it’s our obligation to speak out, and do so without getting in the gutter with those we are speaking out against.