When I was a college freshman, some upperclassmen friends warned me that one of my professors had a history of looking for an opportunity to go ballistic.

At least once a semester, they told me, he'd go nuts on his students, berating the class for being unprepared or not seeing the big picture.

In his big dramatic moment, he'd throw a chair across the room. Happened every semester, they said.

It turns out they were right. But when he did throw a chair in my class, the fact that my classmates and I knew ahead of time totally deflated its impact.

I'm not sure we had the temerity to laugh, because he looked livid. But we blew it off. We knew what was coming because we knew he always did it. 

I've thought of this anecdote twice over the last 24 hours or so.  

The first time was when I heard about what rookie quarterback Daniel Jones reportedly did during an important huddle toward the end of the New York Giants football game Sunday.

Jones's teammates apparently had never heard him swear, but he dropped an F-bomb, as they say, to shock and motivate his teammates. Yelled: "Let's [F-bleep] score!" 

"Guys were taken aback," Jordan Raanan of ESPN reported on Twitter. "Had never seen that side of him, seen him curse. Moments later he pulled a zone read and ran in a touchdown. Had the sideline buzzing."

I didn't know swearing was so rare in NFL huddles, true. But his Giants beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 32-31.

Final example for today. I kept hearing two words to describe teenaged climate change activist Greta Thunberg's speech at the United Nations on Monday: "impassioned" and "emotional." 

Here, an example from NPR:

In an impassioned speech, Thunberg told those who hold office, "you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words, and yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing."

...

"How dare you?" she asked again, growing increasingly emotional as the audience cheered at the 2019 Climate Action Summit.

I watched the video. Sure enough, her delivery is impassioned and emotional.

Climate change is a far bigger topic than I can possibly tackle in a single short column like this. So let's  stick to rhetoric.

It's an unusual thing for a teen-ager to address the UN. (Not unprecedented, of course; think of Malala Yousafzai.) I suspect ​Thunberg's passion and emotion are especially striking because she looks even younger than her age.

Perhaps nobody who didn't already more or less agree with Thunberg's take on climate change would be moved by her speech, but, that's okay. Her intended audience isn't skeptical, and her goal isn't to change minds. 

Instead, it seems her goal is to motivate and inspire people who are already inclined to agree with her, but who aren't moving fast enough.

It works to communicate with them. It doesn't for others.

So that's where I'm coming down on this. Passion and emotion--and even cursing and swearing--can all be effective tools if you use them correctly.

Usually that means using them sparingly. Making them outside the norm.

Otherwise they're just crutches. They can even backfire.

If you're always impassioned, you never are. If everything's a priority, then nothing is.

And if you're always throwing chairs, you may as well just sit down.

Published on: Sep 24, 2019
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