Just Words: communicating in a digital age

economist cover (1 of 1).jpg Something significant is changing in the way we use words. The Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year for 2016 was ‘Post Truth’. ‘Fake News’ and ‘Alternative Facts’ have been around for a long time but only recently has it proved necessary to coin these phrases to describe what is happening. The way words are used in public life is changing fast and since public life influences all areas of life, something significant is changing in the way words are used generally. So striking is the change that there has been a rush of new books on the subject. Some of the best are “Enough Said: What’s gone wrong with the language of politics”” by Mark Thompson, former Director General of BBC, “Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back” by Matthew D’Ancona and “Post-Truth: Why we have reached peak bullshit and what we can do about it” by Evan Davis. These books examine what is happening from the point of view of contemporary journalists.

fake news.jpg This blog will examine what what the Bible has to say about the way we use words.  (When this blog was near completion I chanced upon an excellent radio analysis of Post Truth politics originally broadcast by BBC as ‘A brief history of Truth’

 THE WAY WE USE WORDS MATTERS.

Throughout the Bible this message is clear: the way we use words matters. The book of Proverbs in the Old Testament has a lot to say about this.

hummy.jpg Prov 16:24 Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.

We know this from experience. We can readily bring to mind words which have been said to us which have been life-giving.

Sadly, most of us also know the experience of hearing words that have the opposite effect. The author of Proverbs, probably writing at least 600 years before Christ, shared this experience…

Proverbs 18:21. Words Kill, Words give life: they’re either poison or fruit—you choose. (The Message)[1]

Prov 12:18 Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.

Anyone who doubts that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” should check out the statistics regarding cyber-bulling compiled by the Megan Meier Foundation.

We can affirm the truth of these sayings on an individual level but these proverbs also have a wider application. The tongue of the wise can bring healing not only to individuals but also to communities and even to society at large. The Bible gives a number of examples of this. Here is one example that I find intriguing.

Ecclesiastes 9:13–18 “…There was a little city with few men in it, and a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. But there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. But I say that wisdom is better than might, though the poor man’s wisdom is despised and his words are not heard. The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools.”

A further example is 1 Samuel 25 where a man called ‘Nabal’ speaks churlishly to servants of King David and in so doing provokes David who prepares for war with Nabal. The annihilation of Nabal’s family was averted only because of the gracious words of Nabal’s wife, Abigail. Words which she spoke to David having rushed to meet him without Nabal’s knowledge.

Look at Twitter and many online conversations on blogs and facebook and you will find that words of anger, hatred, scorn and derision far outnumber words of restraint and peace. We need develop the skills of Abigail and of the anonymous forgotten wise man from the story and learn how to add more life-giving words into the mix.

CHARACTERISTICS OF LIFE-GIVING WORDS.

They are honest. They contain nothing false and no element of deceit. They are straightforward.

Lev 19:1 “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. [See also Eph 4:15, 25 and Col 3:9].

“There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up dissension in the community.” (Proverbs 6:16–19, TNIV)

shark goldish.jpg Words which are false destroy trust. This is true both on a personal level and on a collective level. Consider the effect of the failed Blood Sunday Inquiry and the failed Hillsborough Public Inquiry. Both were only put right after years and years of obstruction and false-dealing with the result that there is a legacy of distrust that has contributed to the difficulties that more recent public inquiries have faced and are facing[2].

This is one of the reasons why the lies, distortions, exaggerations, half-truths and deceptions practiced by all sides in the EU referendum and in the general election are so damaging. They undermine trust and undermine our respect for both individual politicians and the entire political process. Its not just in the UK. Jonathan Friedland has recently noted:-

“The civic realm is being degraded by Trump’s lies, vanities and insults. The national conversation is being coarsened. The basic democratic assumption, that disagreements can be resolved through discussion rather than coercion and violence, is being eroded from the very top”[3]

They are dependable and faithful. If I say that I will do something but carelessly don’t keep my word, my word will not be life-giving. It will be worse than worthless. The same applies if I backtrack because doing what I said I would do turns out to be more costly than I expected. Our words will only be life-giving if they are dependable: if we are faithful to what we have said. Psalm 15 nails this:

“God, who gets invited to dinner at your place? Walk straight, act right, tell the truth. …Keep your word even when it costs you, make an honest living, never take a bribe. You’ll never get blacklisted if you live like this.”” (Psalm 15:1–5, The Message)

They are apt.

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear.” (Proverbs 25:11–12, ESV)

If our words are to be life giving, they must be apt. Even words of criticism may be valued if they are apt: this verse suggests they will be as valuable as custom-made jewellery. To make custom-specific jewellery to the receiver’s taste the jeweller must first listen to the customer’s requests and assess their taste. Sensitivity is required. It is only too easy to be insensitive:

Whoever blesses a neighbour with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, will be counted as cursing. (Prov 17:14)

Twitter foretold.

Proverbs 26:18. People who shrug off deliberate deceptions, saying “I didn’t mean it, I was only joking” are worse than careless campers who walk away from smoldering campfires.

Proverbs 26:20 For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases.

Proverbs 26:17 Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears.

These warnings anticipate the arrival of Twitter by a couple of millennia. Read the comments beneath any remotely controversial Twitter or FB post and ask yourself if they fall within the categories of ‘life giving’ words described above or whether they are close to the fire-spreading/dog-biting words just described. Perhaps we should think of social media as a potential flame-thrower whose speed and reach enables us to spread fire more efficiently than was previously possible.

Next blog, I shall ask whether the New Testament offers any hints about how Christians might combat the post truth world.

———————————————

  1. Or:“Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” (RSV)
  2. These above instances of dishonesty leading to breakdown of trust arose from specific instances of injustice. By contrast the scale and depth of child abuse among religious institutions is almost impossible to comprehend. See the Speech of Justice McClellan of the Australian Child Abuse Royal Commission. (I quote this the Australian commission publishes statistics which makes the extent of the abuse clear. I am not aware of equivalent statistics for the UK). The long term destructive consequences of the abusers’ dishonesty may be with the victims for life. It is tragic that for years many religious institutions have sought to protect their brand by failing to acknowledge and thus implicitly or expressly denying the wrongs done. This too is an abuse of words.
  3. https://perma.cc/6X8X-2W8C

Alternative Facts.

 

Words, Words, Words….

What was in the red box under the Bible upon which Mr Trump took the oath of office?  It contained the bible, shown below, upon which Abraham Lincoln took the oath in 1861.  Both Bibles contained the following timely advice for the President to be (albeit in more archaic language):-

“Do you want to be counted wise, to build a reputation for wisdom? Here’s what you do: Live well, live wisely, live humbly. It’s the way you live, not the way you talk, that counts. Mean-spirited ambition isn’t wisdom. Boasting that you are wise isn’t wisdom. Twisting the truth to make yourselves sound wise isn’t wisdom. It’s the furthest thing from wisdom—it’s animal cunning, devilish conniving. Whenever you’re trying to look better than others or get the better of others, things fall apart and everyone ends up at the others’ throats.” James 3:13-16 (“The Message” version)

Trump has repeatedly boasted that he can be ‘very Presidential’ / ‘more Presidential’ than anyone except Abraham Lincoln.”   As James says, ‘it’s the way you live, not the way you talk that counts’.  

It would, however, be a big mistake to take the above verses out of context as one might then conclude that the way we talk does not matter.  James is at pains to point out that the words we use matter greatly.   Consider the following:  

“3–5  A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!

5–6  It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke …”  James 3:3–6 (The Message)

Alternative Facts… Where are we heading?

These words are apt for our times.  Consider the Brexit campaign, the US Presidential campaign and the recent NBC interview with Kellyanne Conway  in light of them.  

Congratulations to the NBC reporter who nailed the President’s spokesperson with 2017’s most concise put-down so far “Alternative facts are not facts, they are falsehoods”.  Touché!  

We expect Politicians to use spin doctors and focus groups to help them present their policies in ways that will get the most positive response from the most voters.  We also expect them to spin their opponents’ policies in a way that will put people off. My impression from Tim Shipman’s account of the Brexit campaign (entitled “All Out War“) is that spin doctors no longer simply package policies to make them appear attractive.  They experiment with versions of the facts and versions of policies and, once they find a claim which achieves the desired response in focus groups it will be presented to the public –whether or not it is true.  If a claim will deliver the desired results (i.e. more votes for me or less votes for my opponent) then that claim will be made—if it’s not true, an “alternative fact will do”.   Osborne’s claim that house prices would be 18% lower in the event of Brexit, and Leave’s battle bus statement with its implied promise that leaving would result in £350M a week for the NHS at no additional cost to the taxpayer are but two examples.  

“All Out Politics”

What distinguishes “All Out War” from other war is that in ‘All Out’ war all restraints and self-imposed boundaries are disregarded.  Winning becomes everything.  Genocide, torture, and other crimes: these are some of the features of ‘All Out War’.  Personal abuse of one’s opponents, preying on the fears of one’s audience, promoting falsehood under the guise of ‘alternative facts’: these are some of the features of ‘All Out Politics’.  

In 2016 the USA and the UK have experienced “All Out Politics”.  Self-imposed restraint has lapsed.  Fear-mongering, abusing one’s opponent, relying upon falsehoods presented as facts: these methods have been adopted by all sides and are in danger of becoming ‘normal’.  This causes disillusionment with politicians and with the political process itself.   It also destroys trust: why would anyone choose to trust someone who is willing to put forward ‘alternative facts’ as if they were true?  These results are worrying but even more worrying is the prospect that campaigns of this sort can destroy democracy itself.  

It is the official policy of H.M. Government that:-

“6 Every effort should be made to ensure the organisation’s ethos promotes the fundamental British values of democracy… mutual respect and tolerance for those with different … beliefs…”  1

‘All Out Politics’ does not promote the democracy, mutual respect or tolerance.  It destroys all three.  Democracy relies upon people being able to make informed and that cannot happen if people are presented with ‘alternative facts’.  Mutual respect was noticeable for its absence in both the Brexit campaign and the US Presidential campaign. 

We have to find a way to persuade politicians to draw back from ‘All Out Politics’.  In this respect Mr Trump may have done us a service.  By giving us such a stark example of where ‘All Out Politics’ leads, he has held up a mirror in which we may see ourselves and do something to change our direction of travel.  This is badly needed. The usual rule in a British parliamentary election is that if the party one did not want to win wins, one can console oneself with the idea that the position may be reversed at the next election.  The subtlety of ‘All Out Politics’ is that it corrupts the political process itself, and does so in such a way that the position cannot be reversed.  A loose analogy may help to illustrate the danger.  Consider the actions of the horsehair worms.   The larvae of these parasites  live in water and are eaten by mosquitoes which are eaten by crickets.  The larvae hatch out whilst in the crickets’ gut and cause the cricket to act in a suicidal way  by seeking out water.  The crickets die in the water and the worms survive: producing more larvae so that the process is repeated. 2

Make not mistake: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21).  Words can have great potential for good as well as for harm.   We could encourage a retreat from ‘All Out Politics’ by being scrupulously careful about the way we ourselves use words.  We could then encourage our politicians and press to stick to the standards we set for ourselves, rather than allowing our standards to be set by what we see and hear on TV and in social media.  

How do we match up against the yardstick held out by James 3 ?  Do the words we use bring life or do they risk ‘turning harmony to chaos’?  What is the tone of the posts we make on Facebook?  What are the boundaries we set for ourselves when we disagree strongly with what someone has said or done?  James is not the only writer in the bible who addresses the question of how we use words.  In my next blog I shall explore what the others say.  There is a better way : Proverbs 16:24 “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.”  


How do you think we might encourage a retreat from the more damaging aspects of ‘All Out Politics’?  Please send me your suggestions.

 

BREXIT REVISITED… (A blog for those who were confused but now are not so sure).

 

My February blog gave 10 reasons I was leaning towards Brexit .  Having had the ‘benefit’ of both sides’ campaigns,  here are 5 reasons I am now not so sure.  And here are some reflections on what the campaign tells us…

brexiter2

1: IS THIS THE BEST WE CAN DO?  Both Brexit and Remain’s campaigns have been strident and lacking in civility– mutual abuse is the currency of the day.  “What’s new?” you ask.  Take a look at the Panorama debate between Tony Benn and Roy Jenkins at the time of the 1975  referendum and you notice that the moderator does not interrupt them or shout them down (contrast Mr Faisal Isalam ) and both Benn and Jenkins allow each other to develop their arguments without interruption  before they respond.  The responses are often barbed but the courtesy they show each other has been lacking in the 2016 campaign.   So yes, that this level of mutual abuse has come to be acceptable is something  new.  A lesson can be drawn from this whichever side wins the most votes.  Political leaders need to re-discover how to listen to each other and how to disagree well.  The example being set from the top is poor.

So much politics on TV consists of people talking past each other, ridiculing one another and showing a lack of respect that this is bound to have negative consequences for the country as a whole.   The tone of the conversation has become destructive.  At best this causes people to turn off and tune out: at worst it provides a model of behaviour which leads nowhere good.  Disagreeing well is an art: it requires a measure of grace and humility.  Neither has been on display in this campaign.

no-jumping-diving-danger-sign-k-0302

2: BOTH SIDES’  CAMPAIGNS HAVE BEEN SHALLOW.

Again comparison with the 1975 referendum is telling.  Watch any of the speeches in the Oxford Union debate from 1975 (Peter Shore, Ted Heath, Jeremy Thorpe, Barbara Castle and others) and you find the speakers get beyond an argument based solely upon what may allow the UK to be better off financially and/or in terms of immigration control.  Both sides present a philosophical basis for their views.  Not so today.  2016 has been a campaign of fear by both sides.  The result is dis-spiriting rather than inspirational: as captured in this poster (which is directed to the leave campaign but might have been directed to the Remain campaign with equal force).

Politicians on both sides of the debate have failed to tell us what their vision is for England outside Europe (should that happen).

poverty of campaign

3: IS IT BETTER TO LIVE WITH A DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT THAN TO GIVE UNRESTRAINED POWER TO WESTMINSTER?

This is the question that I can’t resolve.  The ‘first past the post’ electoral system has many faults but it delivers direct democracy.  There is a chance that when you vote you may ‘kick the rascals out’.  The link between the ballot box and the disposal of lawmakers is real.  By contrast European elections are like pulling a toilet chain in UK knowing that there is no chance that in Brussels law makers will be flushed out.  This lack of accountability matters.  Being ruled by unaccountable bureaucrats is not an attractive idea– the lack of a safety valve (being able to vote a government out) is potentially dangerous and can lead to violence such as the rioting we have seen in Greece recently.

But here’s the rub: the quality of the Party leaders as demonstrated in this campaign on both sides of the Brexit debate is no more attractive than the idea of rule by unaccountable bureaucrats. It is not as if we have statesmen or stateswomen who would be capable of delivering a vision for this country which inspires respect and hope, if only they were not held back by a Brussels machine.  What would our politicians do if un-tethered from the EU that they could not do now from Westminster if they so wished?

 My head tells me that the referendum is so momentous that one should ignore short term factors such as the quality of the politicians who would be in power if Brexit won.  But I am conflicted, my heart is telling me to watch out.   There is a wealth of evidence that Boris Johnson, amusing though he is, cannot and should not be trusted.  Listen to the famous Car Crash interview and read the article in the Spectator under the title “Boris Johnson: everything about you is phoney”. The idea of this man in No 10 would be no laughing matter.  See also the comments of Martin Fletcher , a journalist with first hand experience of working alongside Boris.

farage posterI am disgusted by the way the Brexit camp has exploited fears of uncontrolled immigration.  This  UKIP poster is a disgrace. It is  racist and intended to create fear of refugees.  This, more than anything else, propels me toward Remain, or it would do if I could have confidence that the EU would provide a better solution to the problem of our time: the Refugee crisis.

4.  WANTED HOME AND ABROAD: POLITICIANS OF STATURE.

It is often said that global problems should be addressed with global solutions.  Many of today’s problems should, in theory, be more effectively addressed if tackled  by the EU than by the UK alone.  What is hardly ever said is that this theory does not deliver unless the individual nations who are coming together are willing to subordinate their national interests for the greater good.  It requires statesmanship to lead a nation in this way and politicians of stature are in short supply.  This hints at a greater problem: could it be that the need for government and opposition to keep in tune with the electorate has led to them following instant polls and social media with the result that these fashion government policy?  This makes long-term planning impossible and leads to policies which lack consistency, let alone ideological coherence.  Too often, Ministers appear like salesmen conducting a PR blitz, rather than people who genuinely believe in what they are doing and who are acting from principle.   ‘In’ or ‘Out’ these problems will remain to be addressed.

If ever there was a problem which demands a global solution it is the problem of how to help today’s refugees.  Yet now that the nations of Europe should be coming together, EU country after EU country has put up barbed wire fences and adopted policies designed to keep refugees as far away as possible.  I have written elsewhere about this.  It is relevant to this blog because the EU is not only failing to solve this problem: it may even be making it worse.  See the General Secretary of Médecins Sans Frontières announcement that it will no longer accept funds from the EU and Member States in opposition to their damaging deterrence policies and continued attempts to push people and their suffering away from European shores.

5.   BINARY CHOICES ARE BINDING BUT BLINDING.

 

scale_jpg_300x300_q85Come Thursday we are presented with a stark choice:  ‘in’ or ‘out’.  Normally one can weigh two factors against each other but  in this referendum we are forced to choose between things which can’t be weighed against each other because neither is better than the other– they are  different in kind from each other.  For example the possibility of financial security cannot be weighted against the ability to hold law makers to account via the ballot box.  Little wonder that so many of us are confused and undecided how to vote on Thursday.


WHATEVER THE REFERENDUM RESULT WE NEED TO WORK TOGETHER TO FIND A BETTER WAY TO DO POLITICS.  

Parliament was re-called this week to give thanks for the life of Jo Cox.  A life lived in  the service of others less privileged than herself.  Compare that with the emptiness of the campaigning on both sides.  Focusing almost exclusively upon whether UK plc will be financially better off in or out gives the impression that a person’s life consists in the abundance of his possessions.  It doesn’t.  However important financial security may be it are not the whole story.  Focusing almost exclusively upon immigration is also to sell us short.  Even if you could solve the numbers question that would not cure the nation’s ills or lead to a nation at peace with itself.  Where is the big picture?  What are the ideals for which the UK now stands?  What contribution does the UK see itself making to the world?  Europe has enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace: how do we hope to help the unprecedented numbers of people  who have not been so fortunate, but rather have been made homeless by war and anarchy?  How do we bring people together within the UK and reverse the increasingly polarised divisions in our  society?  It is telling that we have heard not a word about these issues in this campaign.

 

Responding to the Refugee Crisis: A Christian Perspective

word-image

Friendly greetings or a threatening mob: how do you see them?

Corrie Ten-Boom’s book ‘The Hiding Place’ was a life-changing book for me.  Reading it showed me that one could truly know Jesus Christ on a personal level, not just know about him.  It also showed me that there could be an enormous cost to this, as shown by the fact that Corrie and her family paid a very heavy price for hiding Jews from the Nazis until being betrayed on 28th Feb 1944.  Corrie’s generosity, compassion and faithfulness were instrumental in my coming to Christ and I am for ever grateful to her.  But I have been haunted by the question: given the number of Christians in Europe at that time, “why were there so few ‘Corrie Ten Booms’?  

Today there is systematic persecution and killing of Christians in many parts of the Middle East on a scale which has not been seen for centuries. There are more refugees (of all faiths and none) on the move than at any time since 1945.  Perhaps because these problems are so overwhelming there is a temptation to pull up the duvet and bury one’s  head rather than to engage with them.  In an effort to ensure that when people look back on this time people don’t have to ask Why didn’t more Christians do more to respond to the Refugee Crisis?   I have been working with a team of friends  to help shape the response plan for our local church.  We have produced a short magazine.  Download Refugee Responder Issue 1  here for:-

  1. An  honest look at how we see refugees and
  2. What does the Bible say on the Subject and
  3. Some suggestions about what we can do about it. (Other suggestions are to be presented to the church in future weeks).

Please let me have your comments….

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