Public discourse in the United States is not in a healthy place. It’s hard to know what, or who, to believe when someone steps in front of a microphone anymore. Our discussions have become mercenary. Whatever it takes to get the job done, we will say and justify as right.
One of the first casualties in this environment is our communal language itself. We’re all familiar with the concept of “a war of words”. What about the war on words?
We usually identify propaganda and histrionics as attempts to attack people on the opposing side of an issue. What if that isn’t the whole point? Outrageous public declarations aren’t mean to convince you. Those who make them couldn’t care less if only 10% of people really buy in, or if the other side raises Cain in response. Outrageous speeches are designed to attack language itself, to rob us of the chance to communicate in meaningful and powerful ways, thus preserving the power of the speaker with the microphone.
One of the favored tactics of people having marital affairs is to turn the matter around, accusing the spouse of having an affair first. There are plenty of psychological and relational reasons for this; all are icky and we won’t get into them. This kind of accusation also has a communal effect, though. When you’re doing something wrong, accusing the innocent party of doing that wrong first robs the counter-accusation of power.
Let’s say I am doing Wrong X. You discover it and cry it aloud to the community. The community will be shocked, look at what I’m doing, and probably agree with you that it’s wrong. Blame will fall on me. My offense will be condemned. I will lose power and standing. As long as I remain in the community, it’ll be hard to keep repeating my wrong.
But let’s say I am doing Wrong X, but before anybody discovers that, I cry loudly that YOU are doing it. The story changes now. If people investigate and find the charges to be ridiculous, so be it. We have now established that charges of doing Wrong X are ridiculous…like “crying wolf”. If you discover me doing wrong and cry it aloud, people will view your accusation through that same lens of ridiculousness. Some will assume you are only accusing me to get back at me. Others, having once been fooled, will be tired of the whole conversation and want the matter to go away. At best, most observers will deem it a “he said-she said” situation where we don’t know what actually happened but both parties are accusing each other, so let’s just throw up our hands and leave.
Notice how, by making a false accusation, we have turned an “I’m 100% wrong” situation into, “It’s 50/50 at best”. We haven’t done it by changing reality or morality. We’ve reframed the language we use to talk about these things, turning once-important words of accountability into ridiculous arguments.
Notice also that telling an untruth isn’t a liability to my agenda as the wrongdoer, but an aid. I want the accusation to sound, and be, utterly ridiculous! My goal isn’t really to accuse you credibly, it’s to rob you of the language and ability to accuse me. I want to throw the whole notion of truth and accurate speech into doubt, so you cannot convict me of my wrongdoing through it.
The further public speech gets pushed into unreality and ridiculousness, the more language gets devalued. The Yelp/public review era has taught us this already. A four-star review out of five is supposed to be admirable. Instead it’s viewed as a disaster. If it’s not at the absolute upper extreme, it’s no good. When every meal is the best ever eaten in the history of the planet, saying, “Yeah, it was great,” sounds like an insult by comparison. But since “best in history” is repeated so often, even those extreme words lose their meaning. We can’t find words to accurately describe goodness or greatness anymore. We’re left guessing what everybody means, trying to parse out how much we trust the speaker personally instead of how much meaning their words carry.
Over-the-top accusations in the public square have the same effect. If I’m hurting you, but in the process I take language to an utter extreme, now you have no words left to accurately express the severity of pain I’m causing. Is it four-star pain? That’s less than five-star, so it must not be that bad. Is it five-star pain? Everybody says that. No big deal. Are you going to invent a new category of six-star pain now? That’s the same kind of exaggeration I just engaged in. Nobody’s going to believe you any more than they believed me. If they did, I’d just invent a seven-star category out of thin air and watch you scramble to catch up! I don’t have to convince anybody that my outlandish exaggeration is right. All I have to do is rob you of the ability to convince people that you have a point.
For those in power already, reducing language to rubbish creates a stalemate that will leave them in power and everyone else outside of it. That’s the point of “crazy speech”.
Once again, making words seem valueless and ridiculous isn’t a sad side-effect of the agenda of powerful wrongdoers. It IS the agenda.
Devaluing words has one last sneaky side effect, among the most important of all. Words are the means we use to communicate. We use them to identify, strengthen, and define relationships. They bind us together like glue. When that glue gets weaker or disappears, we’re isolated. We have nobody to rely upon except ourselves and whatever voices can break through. Inevitably those are the voices already in power. Stripping words of their authority is an attempt to strip all other authorities from the life of the listener, who is now at the mercy of whomever is behind that microphone.
For all these reasons, the devaluation of words has immediate importance to communities of Christian faith. Stop and think for a second. How do we know God? How did you learn about God? How do we say God speaks to us today? God works through words. We do not worship the Bible as God. We do say that the Bible is the central means by which God’s being and passion are made known to the world. Words are the means God has chosen to be with God’s people.
For the person of faith, devaluing words is the same thing as devaluing God. Robbing language of its power and authority is an attempt to rob God of same. This is not an accident. People who engage in this kind of public discourse want no authority but their own. That includes any deity. Even if they claim to revere a god with their words, ultimately those words are as ridiculous and powerless as all the rest. It’s a parlor trick, meant to weaken and distract the listener as the speaker grabs tighter to the reins of power.
The upshot is clear: There’s no way people of faith can stand with, or behind, this kind of speech and remain faithful. Ridiculous, disempowering diatribes that through their very utterance blanch language of its authority are the opposite of faith, no matter what actual words they contain.
Think of all the times you’ve heard people claim that there’s a “War on God” (or Christmas, or religion, or whatever you hold dear). Did you ever consider that the person speaking those words might also be the one prosecuting that war? Have you thought that we might be losing it precisely by listening and giving credence to those accusations? If not, you might want to take a minute and consider it.
Part of reclaiming the sanctity of faith in our culture is reclaiming the sanctity of the words that convey it. We cannot lift those as two separate matters. They are intertwined. Language and faith go hand in hand. Devaluing language harms faith and all the neighbors that faith is supposed to serve.
May the words you speak and hear this week have power. May they also bring goodness to the world and the people around you.