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Benedict Cumberbatch

HOW FAR SHOULD LANGUAGE BE POLICED?
What do we make of the developing trend, begun in the US, to judge the words that others use in conversation?

Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me. It isn’t far into life before a child feels the flaws in this saying. Words have an extraordinary capacity to wound or heal and the emotionally adept learn how to use them carefully.

Since the 1980s, when multiculturalism emerged on US campuses and spread across the Anglo-Saxon world, aspects of the language we use have become a political and cultural battleground and there are signs that this war has intensified in American universities recently, as some students watch for ‘micro-aggressions’, words which demean or disempower others.

Most of us would have deep sympathy with the need to use language in a way which affords every human being the dignity and worth they deserve and would resist any attempt to denigrate others because of their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation, among other identities or personal characteristics which could be named. Yet we also know that it is easy to lapse in our conversation through carelessness, distractedness or memory failure. Mostly this goes unnoticed, but digital media amplifies many mistakes which are posted or re-tweeted for others to join in judgment over.

The actor Benedict Cumberbatch regretted the use of a certain word to describe ethnicity in an otherwise sensitive understanding of the obstacles some people face in getting to the top of his profession. This did not stop countless numbers of people joining in a condemnatory free for all. When this happens, the mob looks self-righteous. The current appetite for policing language has been sharpened by social media, as more words are written for others to read than ever before, with a facility to spread them globally.

In the practical, grounded epistle of James, we are reminded of the power of our vocabulary. It is surprising how often we, as Christians who believe in the power of a verbal blessing, are willing to curse others without any sense of the implications of doing so. As St. James said: ‘Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be’. (3:10).

Jesus said that not everyone who calls him ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:21). This suggests that people can master a vocabulary which gains them acceptance among a peer group without necessarily sharing its values and commitments. Some of us may have seen this at work in the Church, as people learn the verbal codes of belonging without embracing a living faith. So-called language police, where they exist, can only monitor the words and not the intent of a speaker, a truth which ought to lead to more humility and forbearance on their part, as we are always much more than our conversation.

The greatest risk in monitoring the language of others is that one person positions themselves as self-declared judge of another, in contradiction of Jesus’ command; it is much better to look into our own hearts and conversation, to find what might be rooted out. More importantly still, there is a whole vocabulary we can muster out of hearts with which to affirm others; which strengthens them in the love which God has for all.


 

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