“One obvious way to try to weaken a cause is to discredit the person who champions it.”
You might assume this statement addresses the current wave of personal attacks imbedded in our political discourse. It was, in fact, a declaration made by Rachel Carson to the National Women’s Press Club 55 years ago today (Dec. 5, 1962).
Carson was a scientist and bestselling author whose book Silent Spring convinced the public and the federal government that overuse of pesticides harmed the environment and affected human health. Heralded today as a champion for the environment, Carson was, in 1962, the target of a massive campaign to discredit her work.
One obvious way to try to weaken a cause is to discredit the person who champions it.
While researching and producing the Working Class: Build & Grow Green documentary, I discovered a biography, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, written by Linda Lear, which detailed the life of a courageous woman who spoke ecological truth to power more than half a century ago.
Carson was not an activist. She was not one to demand attention for her cause. She was a quiet woman whose passion for the natural world led her to spend years investigating the dangers of chemicals introduced into the environment without sufficient precautions.
Her meticulous work, published in Silent Spring, held sufficient evidence that, despite assurances to the public, the overuse of pesticides caused damage to the environment and to human beings.
In Witness for Nature, Lear’s biographer described Carson’s appearance before the National Women’s Press Club in 1962: “With national television cameras rolling, Carson charged that basic scientific truths were being compromised ‘to serve the gods of profit and production.’”
Carson asked her audience, “Is industry becoming a screen through which facts must be filtered, so that the hard, uncomfortable truths are kept back and only the harmless morsels allowed to filter through?”
The filtering of news and information – in order to collect only that which comforts and confirms our own (sometimes-misguided) beliefs – can be dangerous. Before we pronounce judgment on ideas and individuals, it is important that we collect facts and keep our minds open to whatever outcome our investigation reveals.
In her Dec. 5, 1962 speech, Carson quoted a newspaper article (Globe Times, Bethlehem, Oct. 12, 1952) that detailed reaction to Silent Spring from farm bureau officials in two Pennsylvania counties. The article noted, “No one in either county farm office who was talked to today had read the book, but all disapproved of it heartily.”
No one had read the book, but everyone disapproved of it – heartily.
An old adage warns not to “judge a book by its cover.” Carson’s critics mistakenly chose to judge the author without taking the time to read her book.
Today smug, critical attacks of character often pollute our environment. It is important that we, as mature adults, set an example of calm, capable discourse. By taking time to gather credible information about topics that interest us and respectfully sharing opinions based on facts rather than finger pointing, we encourage curiosity and good character among the young people who are watching.
Today smug, critical attacks of character often pollute our environment.
There is a better way to champion our causes than to belittle and berate other people. We gain strength for our convictions when we listen respectfully to others’ ideas and keep our minds open to investigations that reveal new facts and expand our awareness.
We ask our children not to shout over one another in their attempts to gain our attention. It is time we set a proper example by standing for truth and for civility in a climate poisoned by discourtesy, dishonor and disrespect.
I thank Rachel Carson and her biographer Linda Lear for reminding me that speaking truth – to power and the public – does not require shouting. It simply requires a tenacious commitment to the truth about the things that matter most to us.