On the Subject of Language

I recently cut the following paragraph out of a sermon.  The sermon was on Galatians 2:1-10.  The thesis statement of the sermon was, “We are defined more as Christians by the free choices we make than by the set rules we follow.”  Looking at the text, I came to believe that I needed to emphasize choices concerning the poor Galatians 2:10.  So, while the paragraph expressed the concept it wasn’t terribly germane to the biblical text.  But, I’m fond enough of the paragraph to include it here.


            Several years ago, people debated political correctness.  Do you remember that?  People wanted us to learn new terminology–less abrasive, less historically tainted and derogatory terminology.  On the one side of the debate stood those who said, certain terms and images that we have used to describe certain groups are offensive.  We ought to change those terms to be less offensive.  On the other side of the debate stood those who insisted that we could not make rules and certainly could not make laws governing a person’s speech.  I seemed to hear more from the opponents of political correctness than I did from the proponents of political correctness. There were spoofs like Political Correct Bedtime Stories that retold familiar fairy tales using exaggerated politically correct monikers.  I’ll admit that for practical purposes I agree with the second group.  We cannot legislate what people say or how they say it.  But I always had a problem with the tone that this group took.  Their tone implied that it shouldn’t matter.  They said, in effect, we ought to call another group whatever we feel like calling them because we are free to do so.  My opinion is that because we are free, we ought to use our freedom in the most constructive manner possible.  Because we are free, our speech does not reflect the rules we follow but the values we hold.  If you believe that people are irrelevant, if you believe that their backgrounds and histories do not matter, if you believe that people’s lifestyles, ethnicity or gender disqualifies them from respect, then by all means please continue use bigoted, racist and sexist language because the rest of us would like to know where you’re coming from.  If, on the other hand, you truly value the basic dignity of each human person, you might want to consider the way your language reflects that value.   



Example of the Power of Dialogue

In a recent Atlantic Monthly article www.theatlantic.com, Stephen Budiansky writes about a particular interrogator named Sherwood Moran.
Moran 1: ”

Marine Major Sherwood F. Moran, the report’s author, noted that despite the complexities and difficulties of dealing with an enemy from such a hostile and alien culture, some American interrogators consistently managed to extract useful information from prisoners. The successful interrogators all had one thing in common in the way they approached their subjects. They were nice to them.

Moran was writing in 1943, and he was describing his own, already legendary methods of interrogating Japanese prisoners of war. More than a half century later his report remains something of a cult classic for military interrogators. The Marine Corps Interrogator Translator Teams Association (MCITTA), a group of active-duty and retired Marine intelligence personnel, calls Moran’s report one of the “timeless documents” in the field and says it has long been “a standard read” for insiders.”

Patience–Dialogue Part 3

Patience in dialogue refers to patience with the dialogue process. If a person commits to dialogue, they commit to humbly learning from their dialogue partner. Such learning takes time. To begin with, we must learn how a person thinks. Each of us learned to think in certain ways. Mechanics learn to think in ways germane to mechanics. Poets learn to think in ways germane to poetry. These two ways of thinking are not the same. Even if the mechanic and the poet speak to one another about something other than their area of expertise–say religion or politics–they continue to speak as a mechanic or as a poet. Since they are following different rules of thought, they may not initially understand one another. For them to truly enter into dialogue. They must either learn to think as the other does. The poet must learn the rules of thought which the mechanic follows. OR they must learn a new way of thinking that is particular to their subject matter.

I see this frequently in religious work. Ministry involves learning to think according rules of theology, biblical studies, pastoral care, ethics, and practical theology. Each of these sub-disciplines have their own assumptions and rules and they have difficulty speaking to each other sometimes. For a minister who has attended seminary, some of these patterns of thinking become second nature. But we work in churches where we do not communicate often with people who share these patterns of thinking.

Once we’ve learned to share patterns of thinking with our dialogue partners, then we must learn about the actual subject at hand. For example, I may know the rules of theological thinking but if someone wants to discuss the writings of Paul Tillich with me, I’ll have to learn about Paul Tillich. Patience is required to both learn and re-learn patterns of thinking and then processing the actual material.

Another place where patience is required is in the area of persuasion. Ethical persuasion is committed to persuading people on the merits of argument. It is very hard to truly persuade someone. It is much easier to manipulate or coerce people than to persuade them. In manipulation, a person intentionally uses social-psychological cues the induce behavior. For example, when buying a car, the car dealer will attempt to get your own car key from you as quickly as possible. This becomes a subconscious cue that you are relinquishing your car to them and getting a new one. Even before you have been persuaded to buy a new car, they try to manipulate you to buying a car–the actual number of manipulative techniques used by car sales people is too large to catalogue here. People resort to manipulation and coercion because they lack patience with persuasion.

In the first instance, we cultivate the patience to learn OR patience with ourselves and how quickly we can come to understand things. In the second place, we cultivate patience with other and how quickly we can influence them. There is of course a final context in which patience is involved. Patience with the relationship. Just as we are trying to learn, our dialogue partners are trying to learn. Just as we are trying to influence them, they are trying to influence us. Dialogue requires a mutual willingness to expose ourselves both to learning and teaching, persuading and being persuaded. Or as in the line from the Peace Prayer by St. Francis, “To be understood as to understand.” Along the way, we risk becoming angry, getting hurt, mishandling intimacy and a host of other things that can go wrong in relationships. Impatient people take one mistake as unacceptable and withdraw from dialogue. Patient people know that dialogue may take several wrong turns before reaching the hoped for destination. Obviously, there are relationship which simply need to end. They become mutually destructive beyond repair. But more often than not, patience in dialogue will yield a fruitful outcome.