Every Word Matters

Amid all the postings, blogs, and comments about Bobby Budenbender's mocking of special needs people (not to mention the even more virulent reaction to his not-really-an-apology-but-please-keep-buying-clothing-from-me video) I saw a good question: why does it matter that one piece of trash (and his wife) broadcast such behavior? 

Here's why.

Every time you display a behavior, whether the audience is one person or a thousand, you send the message that that behavior is acceptable. The most powerful phenomenon in the universe isn't the strong nuclear force, and despite what Albert Einstein said, it's not compound interest. It's repetition. And compounding* repetition is proliferation. Five people doing something once each is usually more convincing that one person doing it five times.

Here's an example: long, long ago in my corporate career, a phone support person discovered that when he had a less than stellar call with a customer, he could simply change the last digit of the customer's phone number in the CMS, and our survey company wouldn't be able to contact that customer for feedback. One person tried this, got comfortable when he wasn't caught, and started doing it regularly. 

Lo and behold, he mentioned it to a colleague. And then to another. Soon, almost the entire team was doing it -- and then the next team. The behavior spread teams located in two other states. By the time the leadership team discovered the phenomenon, over 100 professional, intelligent people had adopted a clearly bad behavior and turned it into institutional practice. How did they come to feel this was acceptable? "Because everyone else is doing it."**


Think of the way a landslide occurs on a mountain. For thousands of years the mountain appears to be solid granite, then poof -- half of it crumbles, causing a lot of commotion, and in the worst case scenario, death and destruction. The mountain didn't fall spontaneously, though. Natural erosion and (in some cases) manmade forces chipped away at the structure for a long time. Each time a small piece falls away, the void that's left weakens the surrounding area, until cracks finally appear, the tipping point is reached, and the whole thing shatters.

Whether it's individual or societal, morality works the same way. Nobody wakes up one morning and says consciously, "I've decided to start a new life as a homophobe!" Or a racist, or a misogynist, or someone who denigrates retarded people.*** People adopt what they're exposed to frequently, and you don't have to weak-willed or highly impressionable to do it. Even the smartest people succumb to believing something is acceptable simply because so many other people feel the same way.

Need more examples? Go to any news story on Yahoo and read the comments. One story should be sufficient to find dozens of examples of public comments that would have appalled a newspaper reader in the 1980s or 1990s. Once the trolling momentum starts, it accelerates at a geometric pace, because each example validates the acceptability of the sentiment. This particular problem has become so rampant that many online news sources have simply disabled user comments altogether.

And that's why LuLaRoe's profit-protecting stance on the Budenbender's actions is inexcusable. By soft-shoeing the issue and excusing a gross display of insensitivity, LuLaRoe condones it. There's no neutral stance here; there is no context under which Budenbender's little act is acceptable -- except, apparently, if you're a LuLaRoe top seller.

Yes, everything you do or say matters. Whether reinforcing your own beliefs or contributing to others, intentional or not, every action contributes to the next, for better or for worse. And in an age when half the world witnesses your every action live and in person, your ability to have either a positive or negative impact on others is pretty damned strong.

* Yay, Einstein!

** I'm sure this philosophy brought a lot of comfort to each person who lost his job, along with all his friends.

*** I call them "misanthropes," but some people probably feel that's too broad of a term. I like "troglodytes," too, but that's a bit too Dungeons and Dragony for some. I could really use an etymologist here.