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.
- The Department of Education’s ‘Governance handbook’ for academies, multi-academy trusts and maintained schools. January 2017. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/582868/Governance_Handbook_-_January_2017.pdf