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.

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  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

4 Comments

  1. Graham, these words of yours (which i first heard the other Sunday and have now read) are so important in our day and age. I guess it shows how relevant the Bible is and always has been, but today when it seems our politicians and the media find it hard to speak honestly and simply about the most important issues facing this Nation, if not the world, we need to hear words like yours – words that explain the wisdom of God in Scripture concerning the importance of words. Thanks for your words, which are always worth listening to and pondering on.

  2. Well expressed Graham. One of the things that has struck me about social media is the lack of kindness and the regularity of anger / friction / outrage. It makes for an exhausting experience. I certainly make much less use of social media than I used to and I think that’s one of the main reasons. Good post!

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