Thursday, September 8, 2011

Words, Words, Words

Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, and author of Generous Justice, tells of a meeting he attended in which a committee was debating which of its members should be sent to represent them at a national conference. The two persons under consideration were, an articulate young man, relatively new to the committee who had invested himself energetically in its work, and an older member who was being put forward on the basis of seniority; she had been on the committee more years than anyone else and had never attended a national conference. When it looked like the debate might be decided in favor of the young man, one of the committee members declared, “To me this is a matter of justice.” That, Keller said, ended the debate. Who could continue to argue for the young man if his appointment meant an injustice to the older member? So, with one word, the battle was won.

It is not a new phenomenon. Words have been used since man first came into possession of them for good and evil. Their power is perhaps the most formidable force on earth. Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have said, “Give me twenty-six lead soldiers (the lead alphabet pieces used at that time to set printer’s type) and I will conquer the world.” The apostle James warns us in his epistle of the power of the tongue to speak both good and evil.

If Franklin could “conquer the world” (perhaps a slight exaggeration, but only slight) with twenty-six lead soldiers, what can be accomplished with the media at our disposal today? It is truly frightening . . . and inspiring. It is frightening on two levels: 1) those bent on evil have more power and influence today than they’ve ever had and 2) the words we speak, even casually, have a greater chance to do harm than words ever would have had in an earlier age. But it is inspiring to know that there are so many more ways available to those who wish to glorify God than any one person can utilize fully.

The use of language in our culture is not essentially any different than its use at any other time in human history; we persuade, and inform, and warn, and woo. Words are the tools of the admen, the preacher, the comedian, the teacher, the toddler, the codger, the lover and the con.  It would be impossible to nominate any person or profession most dependent upon language, or most pernicious in their misuse of it.

However, I would argue that a top contender for the “honor” of most dishonoring the gift of words is the modern politician. With rare exceptions our politicians, and those who shape their message have decided that specific words can mean whatever they wish them to mean, that their meaning can shift from hour to hour and place to place, and that anytime their words become an embarrassment to them a little artful tweaking can bring them into alignment with what the current audience would like to think they mean.

Most perniciously, politicians have decided that it is far better to use words to attack opponents than to clearly explain their own beliefs and proposals. For the purpose of those attacks, words must be invested with a venom that destroys or severely wounds those at whom they are aimed. Like the proponents of justice in Keller’s example their words become moral instruments designed as weapons of conquest. Words like liberal, progressive, enlightened, compromise are spoken with utter disdain. Labels like socialist, communist, fascist, right wing, Christian, Evangelical, atheist, Islamist, and more, are used not as descriptors, honestly and fairly applied to those being discussed, but as bombs lobbed into the public arena for the purpose of destroying reputations and gaining political advantage.

It is long past time for honest people to begin to demand better of those who say they want to serve our nation. Politicians must be made to confront the consequences and implications of the words they use. If we are unable to do so face to face – and most of us have no immediate access to politicians, even on the local level – we can use whatever means is available to us to “confront” their unethical and sometimes immoral misuse of language. We can speak up against, or write about, their disregard for truth among our friends and associates. Such activism carries the risk of being shunned or attacked, often by those using the same tactics as Keller cited in his example – being put on the side of injustice, or immorality. But that is a price that must be paid if there is any hope that our political system can ever again function as our founders hoped it would.

Our politicians must come to know that we are listening, weighing their words on the scales of truthfulness and fairness, and finding many of them wanting. They must come to fear that we will cease to listen, cease to believe, and cease to support – with our cash and with our votes – those whose disregard for the sacred gift of language allows them to use it for personal political gain.

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