Robert B. Simpson: Only words …

September 1, 2013 

The printed word, a blessing to humanity though it is, can be a dangerous tool. The problem with words is that people read them, and some actually believe what they read. Sometimes that's not a good thing, because some writers are careless. Some readers are also. The result can be misinformation spread far and wide and trickling down through generations.

Carelessness is not the only problem. Some write words with malicious intent, others with good but misguided or ill-informed purposes. Some readers pick and choose, receiving only the words that fit their personal bias.

Errors crop up in unexpected places. I recently read, in a book written by a highly respected historian and author, a man with excellent credentials, an explanation of why there were problems with coordination during an early phase of the Korean War. Eighth Army, he said, was driving up the west coast of South Korea under command of Army General Walton Walker, while 10th Corps was pushing up the east coast under the command of Marine General Edward "Ned" Almond. Separate services, thus poor coordination. Marines may have been as startled as I was at this description.

Writers often refer to General Almond as "controversial." This is a nice way of saying he was a pain in the neck. Or worse. A colleague of his said, "When the situation called for aggressiveness, Ned was aggressive. When the situation called for caution, Ned was aggressive." He was tough, abrasive, not easy to live with. So it may well be that some former subordinates would like to shove him off on the Marine Corps. But, no, he was Army, through and through.

Sometimes a writer, in an effort to sell a point of view, slips into exaggeration. This can eventually result in diluting, not supporting, the position being sold. Parson Weems wrote the famous story of young George Washington and the cherry tree in an effort to add color to the biography of an upright, honorable, but quite human and mostly colorless life. The story was sold to me as truth, and when I learned better, I was suspicious of other Washington information.

In a recent issue of "Parade," the Sunday newspaper supplement, Oprah Winfrey was quoted in an interview as saying she will not allow the use of the "N-word" in her presence. Perfectly reasonable and understandable position, in my opinion. Because, she said, "I always think of the millions of people who heard that as their last word as they were hanging from a tree." Millions? Really? Even one lynching is an obscenity, a revolting crime against humanity and a rejection of the rule of law. But "millions" seems exaggerated, even though it's difficult to come up with exact figures. Loyalists were lynched during the Revolution. Unionists were lynched in the South leading up to and probably during the Civil War. But Tuskegee University figures are considered pretty reliable for the period of apparently the highest number of lynchings, 1882-1968. Tuskegee's figures show a total of 3,446 blacks and 1,297 whites lynched during those years. Even if you double and quadruple and then double again those figures, you don't come up with millions. And the exaggeration casts unwarranted doubt on what are facts. This is a case where the writer might have questioned his interviewee more closely for clarification.

Sometimes even light-hearted humor causes problems. (See responses to recent Ledger-Enquirer column headline, "Digital media not learning students," etc.) There is always someone who will miss the point. A sense of humor, like common sense, is too often in short supply.

Writers owe their readers clarity, accuracy, and truth, to the best of their ability. Readers owe themselves careful reading, skepticism, and a willingness to search out and compare written information. Oh, yeah…and a sense of humor.

By the way, if you see an error in one of my columns, I was probably joking.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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