For a sloth, three-toed or otherwise, I am unusually garrulous. As a species we are shy and retiring. If we have thoughts, we tend to keep them to ourselves. What we think, and what we think of, usually goes unshared. Sloths rarely do social media.
But I am different. I am always happy, at a party, in a bar, over dinner, to talk, lecture sometimes, on almost anything. This often annoys my friends; why they continue to tolerate me, I don’t know. But there are many, many people who would rather be in Slough than exposed to my tedious flow. There is one, in this part of the forest, who, seeing my approach, develops an absorbed interest in the nearest verge, in each blade of grass, each tiny ant, each purple vetch; an absorption that lasts until I am well out of sight.
There are certain subjects for which I reserve a very slothly reticence. These include feminism and feminist writings; the possibility of love; the state of English cricket; the rights, and wrongs, of both the Palestinian and the Israeli causes; the taste of bara lawr, laverbread; the hurts siblings visit on each other; the meaning of poetry; whether her bum looked big in this. The list goes on. It’s very varied: the important, the trivial, the purely academic, the highly personal.
Over the years that I have been unable to write or speak, about these things, but have never fully understood the reasons for my silence. It is not that I don’t have views, or couldn’t develop views, about them. I most certainly do and could. But on these subjects there is just The Silence of the Sloths.
Perhaps there is some sort of early warning system in the brain which detects a social minefield ahead, and inhibits comment? There could well be; evolution is full of such mechanisms to preserve the species. But if there is, in my case, it is highly dysfunctional. Where was it on all the occasions I bored a dinner table into slumber?
Could it be a fear of giving offence? In some cases, yes. But in general, I’m happy to discuss sensitive subjects like religion and politics and faddish diets, all guaranteed to cause offence to someone. And, anyway, who could take offence at thoughts on the meaning of poetry or the delights of laverbread?
Maybe these things are too painfully personal to explore, even in the privacy of my own head, much less in the open forum. In some instances, yes, but surely not in all. The case is often that I may be happy to discuss my last operation in great detail, but not my last visit to the proctologist. Both equally personal, both equally uncomfortable, so where is the logic in laying bare the one but not the other? Consider also that you may be prepared to discuss your own mortality, but do not choose to explore in public the reality of the process of your own death. But truly, in both cases, you could quite easily swap the subjects around and still be none the wiser about why you can talk about the one, but not the other.
Why is this? Why, when we struggle so hard to be logical, rational, consistent sloths, is the brain so capricious? Is there some survival value in this? And if so, why do some people have the enviable capacity to remain silent when they should, and speak only when wisdom dictates? Is that the direction in which the survival value works? It’s possible, because the silent man is less likely to provoke the deadly one.
Then, if judicious silence has survival value, why do so few people have the mechanism that promotes it? For I am not alone in this deficiency. It is my observation, speaking as a rather too voluble sloth, that the majority of us say too much, to too many people, all too often.
In the past, the harm done by engaging the mouth before the brain has had a chance to edit the content, has mostly been limited by the small group we can reach at the dinner table, the party or the pub. But in the new virtual world of instant communications, the likes of Facebook, of Twitter, and of WordPress, which powers this blog, allows all of us to speak our minds without fear of the consequences. That can be a good thing, but only provided that the mind is well prepared, and the words well chosen. But it can be incredibly harmful to us, and to others, when they are not. Pardon me for being a grouch, but a lot of what I see out there is pretty harmful.
Social communications tools can fool us into believing that, when we write, or speak, or make a video, and post it online, we are talking in a private space – a virtual dinner table, party or pub. But we are not. We are shouting to the world from a platform so vast in its reach, and so compelling in its influence, that Hitler or Stalin would have given half their empires to have it at their disposal.
Whatever we write or say in this space can come back to bite us; it can even destroy us, and those around us. Our words can be weapons of mass destruction. Already, global companies are trawling social media to build up our own words (and those of others) to use against us when we apply for jobs or ask for a loan or rent a house. I know of people who have been fired for comments they made, in privacy (they thought) online. If private companies do it, you can be sure that government departments are at it as well. And we haven’t yet touched on trolls…
So it would be best for us, for our own survival, to look into ourselves, and consider not only what we think, but what we should do with the thoughts we think. We need the wisdom to know which of these to communicate, how to phrase them and with whom to share.
Take it from me; you need the wisdom to know that it’s alright to leave some things unsaid.