Words can bite, actions can hurt

Debra J. Saunders

9/10/2001 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders
"Words Can Heal" is the name of the latest celebrity-endorsed cause. Its goal is to "reduce verbal violence and gossip." Too bad that it fights gossip and verbal abuse with celebrities who hire PR flacks, politicians and a warped message. Note to the Words' directors: Moral advice works better without spin. If someone wants to tell me that gossip is bad, I'd prefer that someone not be Tom Cruise -- who stands against gossip as he poses on a magazine cover with his new squeeze, Penelope Cruz. He hates gossip, but when his PR people control the spin on his private life, that's different. If someone is going to lecture me about gossiping -- as the campaign's handbook does -- I'd prefer that person not be Words Honorary Chairman Rudy Giuliani. The New York mayor's attorney, you may recall, bashed Giuliani's wife for being "an uncaring mother" because she tried to keep Giuliani's girlfriend away from their kids. Yes, words can hurt. The list of those lending their names to the cause has its share of Cheating Husbands Against Gossip, including former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Dem HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, whose extramarital affairs made headlines. No Gary Condit, at least. It's too trite to accuse Words' luminaries of hypocrisy. Still, some of the campaign's big names ought to have the sense to know that they aren't the right people to lecture against gossip and verbal abuse. Rabbi Irwin Katsof, co-executive director of Words, is the right kind of person, yet he disagrees with me. "The fact that (celebrities) are lending their names to it says that this is an important issue in our society," even if they don't always adhere to the ideals. Celebs, he argued, "will get children, who might not pay attention to it, to pay attention to it." True, but it also may turn off some folks. Of course, Words' handbook -- you can find it at wordscanheal.org -- should turn off people, too. "Allison and Kevin" is a handbook parable about a pregnant Allison who is devastated when a friend calls to tell her that she saw Allison's husband having lunch with another woman; he's having an affair. Instead of knowing that lunch doesn't mean an affair, Allison is crushed until Kevin comes home and reveals that the woman is a party planner, who was helping him plan a surprise birthday party for his wife. Allison, the handbook lectures, "should have given Kevin the benefit of the doubt." (This morality fable is a cad's dream. Did Newt ever try that line?) There's the story of Ruth Smith. Because someone mistakenly thought Ruth had cruelly dumped someone, another woman didn't fix Ruth up with her nephew and, the handbook scolds, "Ruth Smith remained single for another two years." (Did they write this in the '50s?) In another tale, when a woman tells a friend she never wants to see a man again because he stood her up, the friend advises, "Before you jump to any conclusions, find out why he didn't call." (That's right, treat the cad as if he's incapable of calling and explaining on his own.) In "Bettina and Jim," Jim takes credit for Bettina's idea. She confronts Jim; he denies it. Later, when a co-worker thinks of hiring Jim for a weekend job, Bettina badmouths the guy. "Even if Jim had purposefully stolen Bettina's idea, there was no benefit in denigrating Jim. Maybe Jim stole the idea because he was going through a difficult time in his life and needed approval from someone." In "Eli and Mr. Martin," Mr. Martin doesn't pay Eli overtime pay for working overtime. Eli complains but doesn't tell Mr. Martin off. Years later, Mr. Martin loans Eli money. (No wonder corporate heavies such as Peter Coors and Lennert J. Leader, prez of AOL Time Warner Ventures, are on Words' board.) I just hate this modern fixation on how words hurt. Words can hurt, but actions can hurt more. It's not the talk of an affair that hurts, it's the affair. But you'll never see a celebrity campaign against adultery. It used to be your actions defined you; now it's your speech. You can do wrong, but you can't say wrong.