Death and life are in the power of the tongue,
and those who love it will eat its fruits.”
— Proverbs 18: 21
“If you can’t say something good about somebody, don’t say anything at all.”
— American folk wisdom
“Don’t be so contrary.”
— What my parents said to me, a lot
Violence is always preceded by violent language.
Violent words in wars are fought with violent, nasty, demonizing language.
I’m talking about wars in the broadest sense: that is, in wars that play out in divorce and child custody courts every day; or in wars in the Middle East; or in the wars that are the shouting matches in media and in government and political arenas and “social” network posts every day now.
In order to “win” against the other in a “war” of words, you have to hammer the other one with destructive, denigrating words.
Some of the most demonizing words — including words like the “n” word or “faggot” (a word that stems from the days when they used homosexuals for firewood) — can kill or deeply wound someone in soul and spirit.
My youngest-born daughter, who was born Megan McKay, has had a heart for physically and mentally challenged kids since she was a little girl, when she attended her first Special Olympics with her mother. Naturally, the grown-up Mrs. Megan Bidelman, a kindergarten teacher, majored in Special Education at Texas A&M.
You do not want to use the word “retard” even in a joking manner around Mrs. Bidelman — she’ll give you a fierce “education” about the pain that the word inflicts on millions of American families.
We hear so much lamenting of “politically correct” language, and Lord knows the p.c. police — especially, but by no means only those on the Left side of the political gauge — are out of control these days, putting a chill on freedoms of expression at every turn.
No less a liberal than the stinging, killer-bee comic Bill Maher is on a crusade against his own political tribe these days, rightly noting that progressives are taking political correctness to serious extremes.
Maher, who lives by extremism, is such a militant atheist and religion hater that I have a hard time abiding him; but as offensive as he can be, he’s definitely an equal opportunity offender.
I’m drawn nowadays to more civil progressives, though, like the very civilized and unapologetically Christian liberal Kirsten Powers, one of the more calm and palatable pundits at the all-too-often shrill Fox News. (See my post last week about young Fox star Greg Gutfeld’s nasty, god-awful take-down of Pope Francis.)
Powers has written a book that apparently cites a long litany of anti-freedom sins by the left-wing thought police. (Of course, Powers is anti-abortion, which, in the view of so many intolerant progressives who preach tolerance from every rooftop that they can climb up on, automatically makes her just another wrong-headed Fox conservative.) See more on Kirsten in a nice Washington Post piece here.
There’s a fine line, usually very difficult to discern, between what is genuinely politically correct nonsense and what is just plain thoughtless, mean-spirited, hateful, tasteless, undignified and unnecessary language. And to simply slap the “political correctness” label (or “race-baiter” or “racial divider”) on somebody or some issue is a good way to cover a multitude of mean-spirited, conservative sins, by the way.
Like so many millions of Americans (and not just in Texas and the South, by any means), I used a lot of ugly, demonizing language, and shared racial jokes or laughed along with some of the ugliest jokes imaginable, from the time I was a child and into my youth, coming of age as I did in a thoroughly segregated Texas town, a town that Texas writer Larry McMurtry once described as nice little “crumbling” Southern hamlet. (Speaking of fearless, contrarian independents–read McMurtry’s first book of essays from early in his long career, In a Narrow Grave.)
I probably joked more about “fags” and mocked them like so many Americans and Southern good ol’ boys did — until I went to college. I’ve always made friends easily and I made several great friends in college whom I very much love and remain in contact with to this day.
One such college friend was — he is — gay. Talk about somebody who has always made fast friends — he’s one of the most personable, charming, outgoing, friendly and warm people you could ever know, and that I’ve ever known. He prospered in a long career at one of the airlines and now travels around the world in his retirement, most of the year, with both straight friends and gay friends alike.
Partly because of him, and because of so many people of other races and ethnicities and sexual orientations that I met on a very diverse college campus (the University of North Texas) in the turbulent sixties–when the times they were a-changin’ and changin’ in fast and sometimes ugly ways–I started outgrowing and taming some of my darker impulses, the sort that spring from racism or homophobia or whatever.
I can’t say that taming such strong impulses–that trying to grow into a better, more tolerant and understanding person–came overnight. The impulses in fact are still way down there in my “shadow side” somewhere. We all have our dark “shadow sides,” all of us.
For a long time I could still laugh along in private with an ugly racist or homophobic joke with trusted friends, using or shrugging off hurtful words that I nor the joke tellers would never, of course, dare to use around someone who would be offended to the point of real hurt.
I mean, what racist or homophobe would dare tell a racist joke or direct a racial or homophobic slur at Dallas Cowboys football legend and gay-rights advocate Michael Irvin to his face? (See more on Michael’s background here.)
How cowardly is it to demean someone of another race or color or sexual orientation behind their back?
And yet it’s often the people who pride themselves on being fearless “truth tellers” and “tell-it-like-it-is” types who use the most cowardly language — in private, not in public, where they risk being held accountable for their words.
But here’s another angle regarding all this — and let’s face it:
Who among us didn’t, or who doesn’t, do or say things in private, intending no pain or harm to anyone, that we wouldn’t want exposed to the growing billions on the Internet?
Who among us doesn’t just “go along” sometimes–or used to go along–to get along, in our thinking that no real harm was done to anybody in private?
As a writer whose style is prone to a very personalized writing style, I’m not one to pour out all the details of my personal life to the world.
In fact, if and when I ever take over this crazy world, I’ll banish Dr. Phil and the troubled people he counsels in front of God and everybody in the world on worldwide TV back to the privacy of his counseling office where counseling belongs. We got way, way too much public and not enough private in this world now.
But as a divorcee, I’ll just say here that in my private life I can’t say that I’ve always been good at taming my tongue in love and marriage and personal relationships.
Nor has my tongue been entirely tame in my attempts at political and religious persuasion right here. I’ve used overly harsh or “snarky” language right here at this blog. But I’ve made a conscious effort in recent times to tone down my honest-to-God-felt contempt for people with whom I fundamentally and fiercely disagree about things. A good-faith effort to “hold my tongue” and not get into verbal spitting matches with people that do nothing to advance the kingdom of God, not to mention democracy or civilization.
Besides, denigrating or demonizing someone with whom we fiercely disagree with snarky or clever language is commonly more of an attempt at puffing ourselves up to look cool and clever anyway, so that we can get some “atta-boys” and Facebook “likes” from like-minded friends. We see this on Facebook, a lot.
The word for it is “self-aggrandizement,” and there is a lot of it going around, thanks largely to everyone trying to out-clever everyone in the endless whirlwind of social and other media.
Of that I’ve been too guilty at times. Mea culpa and all that.
But, again, I’ve tried in recent years, in my spiritual journey as a Christian, to practice more Christian humility in my writing life as well as the whole of my life.
I’ve had to repent of a fiery tongue that used to get out of hand in relationships, in writing and debating, and I still have to work, at times, to keep this potentially “poisonous” tongue tamed.
I am nothing if not a fierce “opinionator.” You may have noticed this before. And I will be fierce, passionate, in my convictions until my last breath; of that you can remain assured.
But I’m more aware now that it’s one thing to use direct, sometimes firm or even strong language in conflict, as did Jesus, who even though he was equal with God, “he humbled himself.”(See Philippians 2: 1-11 here.)
It’s another thing to “trash talk” or do a “gotcha!” just to put down somebody or somebody’s point of view that you don’t “like.”
The word “life”–as we can see from page one of the Bible to the end of it, and as we can see in all of literature and so much art–is pretty much just another word for “conflict.”
It’s all about how we resolve our differences, because we’re going to have conflict–and necessary conflict. And the only real way to resolve our differences, in the final analysis of all conflict, is with words.
Wars–“culture wars” or a bloody wars–don’t really end up with any “winners.” Even we “the good guys” tend to become the very evil that we detest and fight against.
Yet we don’t get to tolerance and reconciliation by “playing” at nice. It seems to me that grandma’s advice about not saying anything about somebody unless it’s nice is a trifle flawed.
Again, some of the language that Jesus used in blasting his enemies will blow your hair back, assuming you have hair.
But Jesus, not always sounding like Mr. Nice, never said “don’t make enemies.”
Jesus did tell us — commanded us — to love them, and taught us to deal with our enemies in all the tensions and paradoxes that love holds. Another of those “fine” or “fuzzy” lines we tread sometimes is the one separating righteous indignation that is truly on the side of right, vs. self-righteousness, cynicism or a little and maybe a lot of hate, which is evil.
Loving enemies is no small–and certainly no easy–spiritual challenge, since our “shadow sides” harbor all kinds of evil. Or what might be called our sin-sick dis-ease.
But all morally great things come out of conflict and dealing head-on with the huge, mountainous challenges in resolving them.
Conflict is the only way we reach understanding and reconciliation and, ultimately, peace.
James the brother of Jesus warned: the tongue can be “a restless evil, full of poison (James 3: 8).”
He also opined that the tongue can’t even be tamed at all, and I’m not sure why he said that. He was probably suggesting that the tongue is just too full of evil for that evil to be eliminated entirely, and that taming it requires eternal vigilance.
But the toxic or potentially toxic tongue sure as hell can’t begin to be tamed if we don’t even try to monitor the words and language that we use.
A physician friend of mine back in Bryan, TX, used to have an etching he kept on his office desk that said:
“Throw a little salt on what you hear and sprinkle a little sugar on what you say.”
We might want to throw a little salt on what we hear and sprinkle a little more sugar on what we say, and do more fruitful listening and less reactionary talking, even at out angriest and most outraged.
Grace and peace.