A new phrase has cropped up in journalism. More and more often, in just the last six months or so, I’m seeing the phrase to “walk back,” referring to a comment or opinion.

Have you noticed it? This or that politician makes a statement that they may not have thought through carefully; or it’s an opinion they assume has the approval of the crowd before them. Or it just slips out in an ad lib moment. They see their political “handlers” blanch, and suddenly the speech is cut short. A few days (or minutes!) later they realize that the comment was unwise, or could be taken out of context. Before long the speaker, or their communications manager, feels the need to “walk it back.” The speaker tries to reframe the comment, to make it vanish; they wish away the spoken opinion. In that “walking back” they often make a bigger mess of things than what they hoped to erase.

It takes a great misuse of creative energy to try to make the public believe that their eyes and ears deceive them. Especially in this world of social media where an idea or opinion can go viral and circle the globe within seconds, before there is a chance to “walk it” anywhere.

It used to be more acceptable to make a mistake, to misspeak. We are fallible creatures, after all. That doesn’t make a blunder any less awkward, nor the damage any less hurtful if it caused harm.

But there is a time-honored exercise called “eating one’s own words.” We can admit it if we misspoke. We can apologize if necessary, right in the moment. And then move on.

The 18thcentury poet Alexander Pope, in his poem “An Essay on Criticism,” assures us that “to err is human.” He counsels us not to let ego get in the way of apology nor compassion be lost in criticism: “good-nature and good-sense must ever join: to err is human; to forgive, divine.”

Pope also recommends that we “make use of ev’ry friend—and ev’ry foe.” It must be acceptable sometimes to make mistakes in public. We must be encouraged to speak our truth, and then to stand in that truth even when others disagree. And, standing there, it is equally wise to let the other’s differing truth be heard, perhaps to become a nuance of our own.

We need to walk our talk. But let’s encourage each other to walk it, not back, but forward, toward a richer understanding of ourselves in the larger context of civility and community.

A NOTE ABOUT MY NEW BOOK, “Mortal Beings”: As I mentioned in last month’s post, the publisher’s marketing and distribution machinery will kick into its highest gear if the benchmark of 155 pre-sales is hit before March 15. We’re about 25 copies short of that goal right now. THANK YOU to all who have pre-bought. I know it’s strange to buy something sight-unseen. But if you are intending to buy a copy, and haven’t gotten around to it yet, NOW is the time. Please help my new book reach its pre-sales goal. Just go to FinishingLinePress.com, and input Cynthia Trenshaw. I am SO grateful to you!

4 replies
  1. Marian
    Marian says:

    I think the “walk back” comes from “go back,” which used to be used fairly often. Or “Let me go over that again.” Re-visit. The quicksand became deeper after so many individuals began revealing their bigotry, hidden quirks, and hypocrisies in their mass media conversation. Asking people to look at their words in a new light after denigrating women or immigrants, for instance, takes more than an apology. The person’s character is on the line. In that sense, what I’ve noticed is that they want to walk back over the material and explain why the listener has misinterpreted, misunderstood, and is, generally, wrong. Apologies don’t happen in that case because it isn’t the speaker’s fault. No-fault language. Eh?

    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      “Quicksand” is a useful metaphor, Marian. Sometimes, lately, I feel as if I’m standing on the edge of media quicksand, watching so many unwise folks struggling (we all know that’s the WRONG thing to do in quicksand!) to find a toehold and walk back to the safety of not-having-said-that. But the permanence of social media makes “no-fault language” a potentially fatal illusion. What amazes me is that the illusion continues to support so many in the swamp. This would be a good metaphor to play with over a couple of espressos, I think. Care to join me at the edge of the swamp?

    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Thanks so much, Jeanne – honesty and civility and community sound so simple on paper, and take some effort in practice. Though not easy, this IS the simplest way to keep our democracy (and hope) alive.

      Thanks for your advance purchase – when the book arrives at your home in May, it will come filled with love.


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