Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.

Doomsday Clock

Old Adages Come Home to Roost


In the week just ended, some old adages came home to roost – to mixed memories.

-Some seniors among us will recall the wartime admonition, “Loose lips sink ships!”

-And the other widely quoted admonition “Don’t shoot the messenger” who brings bad news.

Both were revisited last week against a visual backdrop of hundreds of thousands of handwritten placards held aloft by hands across the globe.

The Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, keepers of what is called the “doomsday clock,” advanced the Armageddon trigger to its most ominous level since the 1950s and the nadir of the Cold War.  The good news is that it has, within the ensuing decades, been both advanced and retreated. It is, apparently, responsive to changing emphases and insights.

The symbolic instrument was introduced on the Bulletin’s cover in 1947. The scientists who are its custodians note that it is not a scientific instrument, nor even a physical one.  Their announcements are based on its import for encouraging dialogue and awareness and, in layman’s terms, to face the fact that words matter.  Especially when invoking nuclear warfare initiatives or a cavalier disregard for the negative potential of climate changes.

It seems encouraging that the group openly acknowledges past errors of judgment, as when the clock was not advanced at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis of the 1960s.  That sort of realism and humility comes down on the side of hope, signaling that truth- seeking holds as much weight with the scientists as punditry or pronouncements.

The message is clear: while words matter, the willingness to use them for fact-seeking is the group’s goal. The “clock” ticks on relentlessly only so long as words are not respected for the vast power they have. But when that power is acknowledged and respected, there is the hope that they will awaken the respectful awe they deserve.  I think of it in relation to the timeless observation that truth is accessible and that, when known, it can set both speakers and hearers free.

The second adage and its implications may not be so fluid. Willingness to identify message and messenger is, after all an arbitrary decision.  So, once the judgment is made that the messenger is not open to broadening of horizons, or better, to using the current impasse to discover how things can be made better and more inclusive, the prospects for dialogue are limited.

In the case of last week’s events, it does not appear that there is room for the growing awareness that bubbles that happen can also be burst.  They can fade in the honest effort to move beyond the borders of “beats” that allow truth seekers to listen and to sympathize. At their best, the members of the press whose freedom is enshrined in our glorious Constitution, go in search of the face to face encounters that are recognized as an expense worth undertaking.  The purse keepers need to be partners in the search to know the truth of real people’s lives.

It remains an invariably bad idea to identify and so vilify the messenger based on the message he/she delivers and to rule out the possibility that he/she wants and needs that truth. It would appear that when a consensus of response bubbles up from a broad constituency, it takes on an import that transcends propaganda or partisanism.

So, it appears that tightening the loosened lips can have a salutary effect.  Realism demands that we: both speakers and listeners, take note of the fact that the volume of a message increases in proportion to the size of the megaphone.  That in turn, indicates that the holder of the megaphone can influence the impact that message can have for the better, by recognizing that the megaphone comes with increased responsibility. That happens if and when the speaker, seeing the potentially negative impact of words, comes down on the side of “walking back” the original message to reflect what is reasonable versus rabble-rousing.

This is no time for pessimism.  If a system seems broken, we cannot afford to assume that it cannot be mended.  Grown-ups can’t afford to imitate the children who greet a snow storm as an opportunity to build separate forts from which to shape snowballs to fling at one another across a field of mutual silence.  We had chances last week to observe that words matter, and so to be inspired to use them wisely.