“Inner Thoughts” Rodrigo Rodriguez, from the album “Inner Thoughts” (2006)
… not on what everyone is complaining about. The starting point of any thoughts about the conduct or speech of another should not be the conclusions and opinions of yet others about the person one is thinking about.
“Just the facts, ma’am.” It’s difficult for anyone who didn’t experience the early days of television to realize now how popular and influential certain shows were. I used to watch it regularly with my Dad in the 50’s when “Dragnet” and “Hockey Night in Canada” were the only reasons that I was allowed to stay up past my normal bedtime.
I really loved “overtime” in those days before the invention of “shoot-outs”. Anyway, Dragnet, was really popular amongst my parents crowd for its attention to detail and realistic portrayal of the nuts and bolts of police work.
“Snopes“ tells me that “Dragnet” started out as a radio drama in 1949, made the transition to television in 1951 (and aired in both media simultaneously through 1957), became a feature film in 1954, spawned a revival TV series and made-for-TV movie in 1966, was spoofed in a 1987 movie starring Dan Akroyd and Tom Hanks, and was spun off yet again (after Webb’s death) as a new syndicated series in 1989.
The long lived popularity and influence of Dragnet is attested to by the number of Dragnet-related items that have become firmly embedded in our pop culture idiom: the distinctive “dum-de-dum-dum” opening four notes of its theme music; the characters’ rapid-fire, staccato delivery of dialogue; the somber “The story you are about to hear is true; the names have been changed to protect the innocent” intonation of its prologue; and, of course, Sgt. Joe Friday’s famous business-like catch phrase, “Just the facts, ma’am.”
Well, about that last item . . . memory lane is fatally flawed … it turns out that “just the facts” are that the facts folks are talking about are wrong. And we go down this lane when we speculate about other’s motives and intent while relying on 3rd hand reports about what was said or done, appropriately spun to accommodate the views, opinions and fantasies of whoever is writing or speaking 2nd hand.
Our language is replete with famous phrases from historic and literary characters who never uttered the words attributed to them: Marie Antoinette and “Let them eat cake”; Cary Grant and “Judy, Judy, Judy . . .”; Sherlock Holmes and “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Sometimes the phrases are made up out of whole cloth (because they sounded like something those people would say), and sometimes they’re corruptions or rephrasing of something that actually was said. “Just the facts, ma’am” is a case of the latter. So popular was Dragnet in its day that satirist Stan Freberg spoofed it on a 1953 record titled “St. George and the Dragonet.”
This record and its flip side, “Little Blue Riding Hood” (also a Dragnet spoof) were extraordinarily popular as well, hitting the #1 spot on Billboard‘s pop chart and selling over two million copies; the record’s success prompted Ed Sullivan to invite Freberg to perform both sides of the single live on his Talk of the Town variety show. Jack Webb’s ‘Joe Friday’ character typically used the phrase “All we want are the facts, ma’am” (and sometimes “All we know are the facts ma’am”) when questioning women in the course of police investigations. Freberg’s “Little Blue Riding Hood” spoof changed the line slightly, and it was Freberg’s alteration — rather than anything Joe Friday said — that would enter the roll of immortal catch phrases.
So also with all those news items and blogger reports of what people said and did and why, especially the why part, speculation about intent and motive … its expressing opinions about what we can’t know and don’t know we don’t know that trips us up and leads us into trouble and sin …
“Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:
– of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
– of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
– of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.
To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way: Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it.
But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.”
— Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2476-2478
So, going forward, I resolve to write only about sayings and doings and opinions which are verifiable, and that avoid every attitude and word likely to cause unjust injury … and to take a page from my grandfather, namely: “If you can’t say something good about someone, don’t say anything.”