A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit. (Proverbs 15:4 NRSV)
The way we communicate in our society is the subject of rapid change. E-communications, social media and texting are ways in which the contextual power of conversing is quickly disappearing from our discourse. As human beings, we are social creatures that derive real meaning by looking your conversation partner in the eye. Hand gestures, tone and inflection, speed and volume all help to define the emotional mindset in which the communication takes place. Most of the contextual concerns responsible for effective communication are evaporating as a result of the changes in our modes of communication.
Despite the changes in our means and modes of communication, the one aspect not affected in our interpersonal relations is the power of our words. Words are central to the way in which our messages get understood by our conversational partners. Words provide meaning to our gestures and define our contextual moments with clarity. Words so often can belie the true meaning of our actions and deeds (or create a false image of those deeds). Our words are still powerful and still affect people’s understanding of situations and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Whether we are texting, emailing or posting to a social media site, our words serve to communicate the message we intend. Excluding autocorrect mistakes of course…
In recent weeks, the power of words and the abuse of the power of speech figured prominently in our culture. This past week in our public discourse: a woman who offered a coherent defense on a partisan issue was called a ‘slut’; the trial of a man charged with video taping his roommate having an intimate encounter with the same-sex began in New Jersey; and a shooting took place in a suburban Cleveland high school in which three students were killed and an entire community was shaken to its core. I submit to you that the power of words and their effect on people’s actions were at work in each of these situations.
The power of words in our culture is something that we as Americans have taken for granted. People say and use words without understanding the etymology or proper context for using the words they choose. To most of our society, the many billions of words that are a part of daily communication is only necessary to get our points across. Yet inflammatory, abusive, and oppressive language serves to inflict harm and cause pain for the recipients of this communication. Such was the case of Rush Limbaugh’s tirade against Sandra Fluke seen here. There is no need to raise the level of vitriolic language other than to relay some dastardly belief about Ms. Fluke’s intentions or inference about her testimony. Mr. Limbaugh is a smart entertainer who is in the business of choosing his words carefully, yet he time and again uses rhetoric that demeans and destroys.
This is the same behavior that is symptomatic of the bullying epidemic in our nation. Rumors initially swirled about whether or not TJ Lane was the victim of bullying. TJ is the gunman from the Chardon High School shooting last Monday in Geauga County, Ohio. The fact that victims were targeted at random does not take away the fact that violence ALWAYS begets more violence when left unchecked. TJ was exposed to violence at some point in his life and it has been accepted as part of public discourse and behavior. Whether or not the rumors are true, there are still thousands of other victims of a bullying that begins with language that devalues and undermines personhood. These words almost always lead to an escalation in interaction that eventually cause physical harm for any of the parties involved.
The case of Rutger’s University student Tyler Clementi’s suicide is the textbook completion of the effects of derisive language. Specifically, the bullying and devaluing language for Tyler turned into demeaning and humiliating acts that resulted in his roommate secretly videotaping a romantic encounter of Clementi and his male partner. The case began this week and will undoubtedly show the effects of acts, deed and words that demean and question the being of another. It is despicable and inhumane behavior that has its ultimate source in how we speak to (and about) one another.
The writer of Proverbs offers us a profound insight into the power of speech in our lives. Here in a chapter dealing with outward expression and discipline, the writer succinctly articulates the power of the tongue. While a mere tool for human communication, the tongue (says the writer) can either give life or “break the spirit”. Like the writer, we know this not as an existential truth but we come to know this wisdom simply because of our own experience. We have known someone to speak words of encouragement and enliven our very soul. We know people that uplift with a simple few words and encourage the greatest pessimist to find an ‘uncloudy’ day. Conversely, we have had people say things that disturb our being for decades. Bitter and mean-spirited speech has often come out of our own mouths as towards people who are mean toward us. The tongue that is ‘perverse’ (an intentional use toward a dubious end), upend the life of the soul and disturbs the life force of the person. Certain populations of African-Americans and the incessant use of the word ‘nigger’ as well as some women (and men) using ‘bitch‘ and ‘ho‘ to describe one another, are roaring examples of how our tongues have become undisciplined and our speech is perverse. So often the societal norm is for our tongues to be perverted in our emails, texts and everyday communication. The writer of Proverbs forecasts that this speech only leads to our destruction in the end.
The epidemic of bullying and child suicides tells us that words do hurt. People are affected by what is said about them. The old adage of “sticks and stones…” is simply not true. The writer of Proverbs makes that clear, names do hurt and trite rhymes to offer coping mechanisms do not alter the pain to the psyche. The events of the last week highlight the truth of that kind of hurt. So often what we say is born on our bodies and by our children and in our psyche. Add to this the modern effect of ‘sightless’ conversations in the age of e-communications and the effects are the interpersonal equivalent of precision guided bombs in warfare. Without any context or immediate sensory feedback from the wounded party, we don’t have to endure the pain of having to live with our disappointment in hurting someone. We can inflict real hurt and fain ignorance as to the effects of that pain. But it doesn’t change the truth of a broken spirit…
Whether its religious, political or even simple entertainment, the way we talk to each other has devolved into barely respectable speech. My vision of truth this week is to check my tongue and renew the life-giving power that I have therein. For speaking life is the first step toward bringing abundant life into the world. Reading Links…