A few days ago, several news outlets reported on Newt Gingrich’s unfortunate turn of phrase about our President. In a speech in Georgia he referred to Obama as “the most successful food stamp president in modern American history.” Promptly, David Gregory of NBC News called Newt on the potential racist connotations of this remark, thus precipitating a maelstrom of “liberal media” accusations from the usual suspects (here and here). And so it goes, possibly a careless figure of speech, possibly racially charged code, but everyone is now yelling and screaming about whether or not it was OK to say and subsequently to accuse.
There is a much bigger issue at stake than just the utterance of these words. While they offend me and make me think that they were spoken deliberately to elicit racial tensions, the point is that, in an obtuse sort of a way, they can be defended as non-racial in nature. Unfortunately, the speaker’s intention is not the issue any longer, so much as the fact that these words can easily be construed as racially inciting by large swathes of the population. And this is an important point: once squeezed out, much like the toothpaste from its tube, these words cannot be forced back. They will exist in perpetuity and continue to elicit visceral reactions.
Such is the nature of public discourse. Which brings me to the discussion on Bryan Vartabedian’s site about the etiquette of healthcare professionals on Twitter. The example of the particular Twitter stream from a healthcare professional who tweets anonymously under a nom de plume, precipitated a spirited discussion (see over 100 comments) about the propriety and professionalism of her messages in this public forum. While many saw her behavior as at the very least undesirable, some MDs and, more concerning, medical students, did not see a thing wrong with her eructations. Furthermore, she responded via Twitter that she was quite surprised by this tongue lashing and did not know what was so offensive in her messages.
But that is just it! Enough readers saw her words as being disrespectful and even contemptuous of patients, regardless of her intent. And this is the crux of the matter: the distance between the output, and its intent, and its interpretation by the listener or reader can be vast, especially when the message is reduced to 140-character snippets. This is why when people lament that communication is the biggest obstacle in all human relations, they are right. And different types of communication deserve different levels of scrutiny.
So, here is my bottom line. Whether we intend to be hurtful or disrespectful in our tweets or racially divisive, as in our political discourse, is immaterial. In an open forum, if we are concerned with being empathic and careful of others’ feelings, we should think twice (or more) about what we put out there. Because extending this blogger’s thought to all communications, Twitter, like a tattoo, is forever. And everyone is looking.
Marya Zilberberg, MD, MPH, is a physician health services researcher with a specific interest in healthcare-associated complications and a broad interest in the state of our healthcare system. She is the Founder and President of EviMed Research Group, LLC, a consultancy specializing in epidemiology, health services and outcomes research. She is also a professor of Epidemiology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She blogs at Healthcare, etc.