clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How to spot an empty statement

New, 74 comments

Don’t give powerful people license to offer meaningless platitudes and move on without actually helping.

When you see an official statement from a powerful person or institution, try asking yourself two questions:

  1. If you had no other contextual information, could you tell from this statement what the underlying problem, tragedy, or emergency was?
  2. Does the statement tell you what the person or institution plans to do to improve the situation, or ask others to do?

An effective statement does both. As a hypothetical, let’s say tornados just devastated a college community. An effective statement would say something like this:

Our hearts go out to all those who lost loved ones or homes in last night’s storms. We’ll be collecting and distributing canned goods, clean clothes, and diapers to help all those impacted.

And this is what an empty statement might say:

As our city picks up the pieces and tries to move forward, we hope everyone can find kindness and generosity in their heart so we can truly heal as a community.

Disaster recovery is not as complicated as addressing police brutality, though that’s really an argument why a statement on the latter should be more specific, not less. Statements that focus on racism or inequality being unacceptable don’t identify any problem to be solved, which renders those words hollow. Which manifestation of racism is the statement addressing? Differences in who the police are more likely to use force against? Sentencing disparities? Environmental racism? Redlining?

Then there’s what to do about that problem. Are you calling for dialogue? Legislation? Additional civilian oversight? Radical restructuring or dismantling of the existing structures? A statement that doesn’t point towards what can be done to improve the status quo amounts to little more than “gosh, that’s a tough one!”

The bland, generalized statements, the ones calling for unity and justice without exploring what stands in the way of either, are easy to feel good about, especially if it’s a coach or league you like sending it out. They care about racism! They want things to get better! They don’t think this is who we are as a nation!

We can and should expect more than that from people and institutions with immense power, resources, and access. When we casually praise empty statements, we give those people and institutions permission to commit a greater wrong: failing to act. The league that says things must change, without saying which things or how they can be different, has committed itself to nothing at all. The coach that simply insists racism has no place in our society has not said what they or others can do to enforce that belief.

The truth is the vague affirmations and the effective ones have one thing in common: what really matters is what the people issuing them do next. This is, in some way, a blessing for those who fell back on generalities at first. They’ll get many, many chances to show they’ve seen a problem and are using their status and money and time to fix it. Others may not agree with the problems they identify or the solutions they propose, but at least they’ll be trying to do something instead of checking a social media box and moving on.

Remember: these are the same coaches and commissioners and presidents who cling to accountability in every other respect. They want their players to understand their responsibilities, identify failures and opportunities for improvement, and take action to avoid repeating those failures. Do not let them shirk their own accountability. When they weigh in on critical community issues, ask them: what, specifically, do you think is the problem, and what are you, personally, going to do to make it better?

If they can’t answer those questions, maybe they don’t actually care about the problem. They just want to look like they do.