Using and Abusing the Power of Words

The political debate has been filled with accusations and counter accusations about what was said in years past that does not comport with what was said last week, or what was said in private that is at odds with what has been said in public, or what was said in a slipshod way that is now portrayed as deliberate lying.  It’s time to talk about the use of the spoken word.

Let’s start with the public private divide.  Since my columns are under the title of Country Parson, why not consider the well known after church parking lot conversations?  The preacher, warmly thanked on the way out, is chastised for his or her crummy sermon once in the parking lot.  The enthusiastic applause for the newly elected parish leader is demeaned in the parking lot as the worst choice among an unqualified slate.  The new paint color to which all agreed is said, in the parking lot, to be awful, and why didn’t anybody ask my opinion?  In different ways it happens every Sunday about matters large, small, and utterly inconsequential.  I begin with that example because, as a pastor, I know that every pastor has had something to say about it in his or her own private conversations.  And speaking of pastors, consider any clergy gathering and the conflicting diversity of words shared privately, in small groups, and publicly before, during, and after meetings.  Not everything is said in love, and not everything is said in truth.  I know that’s a shock to some readers, and I’m sorry to have had to break the news to you.  Maybe it’s time to move beyond the church and its clergy?

In corporate life as in political life, what is said in meetings is not what is said in the hallway.  What is said in public is not what is said in private.  Explorations of options, opportunities, pros, cons, possible outcomes, etc., are expounded on with good words, bad words, judgmental words, terrific ideas, idiotic ideas, banal ideas, and bizarre ideas launched just for the fun of it.  Staff criticize bosses.  Bosses criticize staff.  Words are batted about with little discretion because, I suppose, we don’t consider that they are likely to have much life beyond the time and place they are spoken.  The same dynamic is true in our social and domestic lives.  We politely greet people we don’t like with feigned warmth, and cruelly gossip about them when they’re gone.  We sprinkle conversations with rumors, half truths, and outright lies, without giving it much thought.  What we say behind the bedroom door is not what we utter in the living room.  What we say to adults is not what we say to children. We choose to share some things, keep some things private (secret), and fudge on the rest.  Friends and acquaintances are on a sliding scale that determines how much we are willing to share with who.

That is the ordinary, everyday milieu of words in which we live.  Does that mean nothing is true and sacred about the words we use?  Must we be content to live in a word swamp where we can never be sure about truth?  No!  Certainly not!  It’s not that we live in a world of deception, it’s that we live in a world in which meaning and perception of meaning are not easily shared between people who each have their own life story that affects how they offer words to others, what meanings they attach to those words, and how they hear what others are saying to them.  Somehow it works.  We tolerate a broad range of word exchanges, and have learned how to navigate among them with considerable skill.

We also live in a world where we recognize the value of privacy.  There are parts of our lives that are private, and it’s no one’s business to pry.  Keeping them secret is not deception.  It’s maintaining privacy.  You know that about your own life.  Business negotiations are often conducted in privacy for a variety of legitimate reasons, and you know that about your own way of making a living.  The same is true for political negotiations.  The stakes are high.  Words are exchanged with care.  Full transparency is seldom an appropriate strategy.  Behind the scenes discussions within each camp test out possible decisions and their consequences.  Candor is essential, and a certain amount of privacy provides the space needed for candor.  As members of the public, we demand public transparency, but working things out between opposing sides, and being candid with colleagues, requires a certain amount of privacy, secure in the knowledge that “what is said in this room, stays in this room.”  It’s a balancing act.

We also have boundaries beyond which words are recognized as dangerous, destructive, just plain wrong.  Intentional lies told for the purpose of deceiving others in hurtful ways.  Words that demonize that which is not demonic.  Words that destroy the dignity of others.  Words that bring evil into the world.  Words that promote unethical and immoral behavior.  Words that betray trust.  Words that excuse bad behavior.  You know what they are.  It’s a long list.  The boundaries are not always well defined, and they are always flexible.  We have a tendency to hold others up to a higher standard than we hold ourselves.  We’re full of excuses for ourselves that we wouldn’t tolerate in others.  Just the same, the boundaries are there.

For these reasons, it troubles me that In our current political environment it has become common place to accuse candidates of horrendous crimes and misdemeanors for the use of words that would from any other person in any other time or place be in the ordinary, everyday milieu of words in which we live.  At the same time, words that are clear and consistent indicators of immoral malevolence are tolerated as unpleasantly problematic, even if they point to egregious acts of fraud and deception for private gain.  There is something fundamentally wrong about that.  It demeans the power of words by making them cartoonish caricatures of responsible conversation.  It uses the power of words to engage in violations of even the fuzziest, most flexible boundaries while maintaining a false front of righteous indignation in defense of prejudice masquerading as truth.  As the saying goes, we can be better than that.

I doubt that anything will change until the election is over.  I hope there will be a return to a more responsible use of words afterwards.  We shall see.

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