Strong Language

The following post is from Brent Bailey, a Master of Divinity student at Abilene Christian University. You can find his blog at oddmanout.net

Let’s talk about strong language.

I grew up in a household that prohibited the use of profanity. My parents established and modeled a certain vocabulary standard, and though they enforced it graciously, the list of unwelcome words was thorough. The effect of that ban on obscenities was powerful: Whenever one of us did let a four-letter word (like “butt” or “crap”) slip, it made an immediate impact, even if the impact was purely comical. Because certain words were off-limits, the strongest ones effectively communicated a volume of emotional intensity that would have otherwise taken entire paragraphs to express.

To be honest, I’m grateful to have grown up in an environment where profanity carried heavy weight. It was a bit like the fine china we kept in a cupboard in the dining room; on those rare occasions when we used it, it stung a bit, and we knew immediately something significant was happening. I think profanity serves an important purpose, and I think it serves that purpose most effectively when we use it sparingly. Think, for example, about the use of the F-word on screen. Since the MPAA generally allows only one use of the word in films rated PG-13, screenwriters have to choose carefully which moment deserves the extra emphasis that loaded term brings. God created us to feel strong emotions, and sometimes profanity is the most effective and provocative way to express those emotions, and it’s most effective and provocative when we use it carefully.

Let’s talk about another kind of strong language. In the midst of our nation’s ongoing dialogue on sexuality, it’s not uncommon for people to use strong words to describe certain attitudes and behaviors:

Bigotry.

Bullying.

Ignorance.

Homophobia.

Intolerance.

Hatred.

Persecution.

Oppression.

Injustice.

I’m concerned we’re overusing these terms to the point that they’ve become meaningless white noise or, at the very least, largely subjective. The same-sex marriage debate is important enough—in terms of its historical significance and its implications for the lives of so many people—for these words to apply in some contexts: Oppression has happened and is happening. Bigotry has happened and is happening. But I’ve observed these words becoming increasingly common from both sides of the debate, especially in online settings, and we’re using them so hastily and so vaguely that they’re losing their meaning and their power. Intolerant has nearly become a synonym for “disagrees with me”; hateful might accurately be replaced, in many instances, by words like “resistant” or even just “rude”; persecution often refers to any kind of treatment that’s merely less-than-ideal. Again: I’m not targeting any particular group with these criticisms, as I’ve heard them in the mouths (or, more accurately, seen them in the digital text) of people across the board, including myself.

The crisis here isn’t lexical laziness. The major problem is that toxic attitudes and behaviors do exist, and we need to be able to name them for what they are, and we can’t do that if our terms have lost their power. We need strong language for those times when something significantly damaging or harmful is happening. Injustice is pervasive, and bullying can be deadly. When they exist to any degree within a particular system or setting, it’s important for someone to speak out against them using the proper terminology. It’s a delicate line, of course, because problems like homophobia often can be subtle and small, and we need to be able to criticize them in the same way we criticize their most violent, dangerous forms. My concern is less theoretical, then, and more practical: When I call everything “persecution” or “oppression,” it starts to feel like those concepts are inevitable, perpetual realities, and it almost feels as if it’s futile to try and root them out.

Furthermore, the terms I’ve listed above tend to be intensely alienating. It’s difficult for me to talk to someone I’ve dismissed as bigoted or homophobic; it’s even more difficult for me to talk to someone who I know has dismissed me as bigoted or homophobic. I’m not questioning whether those labels are accurate, because in many cases, they are. What I’m concerned about is how using those labels is going to affect the nature of our relationships and discourse, whether they’re going to increase our mutual empathy or cloister us further.

So, here are three ways to clarify our language and our perceptions:

1. Determine precisely what you mean when you use strong words like the ones I listed above, and use them well. Don’t assume their meanings are objective or self-evident; try to identify what would and would not warrant the use of any given term. If you’re active on social media and the blogosphere, find a time when you used one of those words, and examine it as a case study: Was your usage accurate? Is it possible a gentler word would have been more accurate on that particular occasion?

2. Listen closely to how others are using the terms, and explore what their usage says about their worldview. Pay especially close attention to how people you disagree with are using them; is it possible you’ve not taken seriously just how severe they think the situation is or that you’ve underestimated their pain or anger? In many cases, people on each side tend to feel like the other side’s use of the terminology is unjustified. (How many times have you seen this play out in an argument? “Don’t tell me you actually think you’re being persecuted.” “If someone in this situation is being intolerant, it’s you, not me.”) Try to understand why someone else might believe your actions merit strong language.

3. When you recognize situations or systems in which words like “injustice” and “hatred” are appropriate labels, root them out. The value of clarifying our thinking on such important concepts is that it allows us to properly direct our attention on the most pernicious social ills around us. It helps us to see the difference between the big stuff and the small stuff so that we don’t squander all our energy on the small stuff (important though it is!).

I think our ongoing conversations about faith and sexuality would go better if strong words packed a punch. Imagine a case in which someone identifies a situation as “unjust,” and the impact of the word causes people to hush, and they’re forced to acknowledge the profound seriousness of the matter at hand. Imagine someone feeling deeply troubled when someone else labels them a “bigot” because it’s not a word they’re used to hearing, and it’s certainly not something they want to be, and maybe they’d better reconsider their attitude. Imagine a world where we take social ills seriously because the words we use to describe them are as indecent as our four-letter words.

Have you seen your use of certain terms change over time? Are there other overused strong words you would add to my list?

Much love.

www.themarinf0undation.org

About Andrew Marin

Andrew Marin is President and Founder of The Marin Foundation (www.themarinfoundation.org). He is author of the award winning book Love Is an Orientation (2009), its interactive DVD curriculum (2011), and recently an academic ebook titled Our Last Option: How a New Approach to Civility can Save the Public Square (2013). Andrew is a regular contributor to a variety of media outlets and frequently lectures at universities around the world. Since 2010 Andrew has been asked by the United Nations to advise their various agencies on issues of bridging opposing worldviews, civic engagement, and theological aspects of reconciliation. For twelve years he lived in the LGBT Boystown neighborhood of Chicago, and is currently based St. Andrews, Scotland, where he is teaching and researching at the University of St. Andrews earning his PhD in Constructive Theology with a focus on the Theology of Culture. Andrew's research centers on the cultural, political, and religious dynamics of reconciliation. Andrew is married to Brenda, and you can find him elsewhere on Twitter (@Andrew_Marin), Facebook (AndrewMarin01), and Instagram (@andrewmarin1).

  • Kate

    Brett, I think you’re onto something important. As someone who often finds myself in the role of mediator, I agree that often it’s the language that causes the most pain. Both sides feel misunderstood, mistreated, unfairly judged, like they’re in a place where they can’t win. So I think it’s important to watch our language simply so we don’t hurt people. (There are lots of times that speaking up is unhelpful in any number of situations. Sometimes love means overlooking offense for the sake of the relationship.)

    But, I want to defend the language itself. Whether or not the side being accused FEELS like the words express their intentions, the fact is that their actions are having that effect. So for example, if a parent neglects a child, he or she may object to being told that they don’t love the child (because in their mind, they do love their child despite the neglect.) But that doesn’t mean that the child feels loved. The parent needs to recognize that what’s important is their child’s perception, not the parent’s warm fuzzy feelings. Likewise, a religious group might vote against gay marriage, and then be offended when they are considered hateful (because in their mind, they don’t hate anyone). But for those impacted by the decision, the fact is, that group voted to deny them something extremely valuable, and that feels like hate (whether or not the group members felt any particular aversion to gays). I think that needs to be acknowledged – so I actually support the use of the word “hate,” or “homophobia,” to describe it.

    • Brent Bailey

      Great comment – I think it’s always helpful to remind people that when we’re talking about interacting with folks whose worldview is different, their perceptions of our actions are extraordinarily important, as far as the relationship is concerned. If Christians (in particular) are going to claim their actions are motivated by love, it’s always worth examining whether those affected by their actions perceive them as loving.


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