Every year, my wife and I have a kind of traditional conversation. I ask her what she is working on and she tells me that she is preparing the “persuasive writing” class for her students where they will learn about a number of rhetorical devises. I then respond with a grumble about how that is not persuasive writing, it is manipulative writing. Truly persuasive arguments may include well crafted language but are persuasive based on the strength of the argument mustered. If you want to train children to be persuasive then you need to teach them to listen, observe and then employ logic as they build their case.
The way we use language does have an affect though. Take the debate over the EU. Did you notice how this got pushed up the agenda. For most of my life, there wasn’t much interest in it. The EU was there, it brought some economic benefits and of course it brought challenges too. Personally I would say that I thought that the single market was a huge positive and I could see the benefits of countries co-operating together on issues such as the environment and providing support to the poorer regions. At the same time, I had constitutional concerns about the democratic deficit, loss of sovereignty, bureaucracy and centralisation.
Those are actually the arguments that matter, and if you wanted to change minds either way, then you would need to build your case by showing that those issues were real and important. However, modern politics has little to do with winning a case and more to do with firing up enough people to give their support. The problem was that no-one was really motivated either way on the EU. We did not have strong attachments to it but nor were we desperate to leave, until asked.
However, it has become a very emotional issue over the past few years and language has been mobilised to do that. If I can start with the pro-EU camp (Remainers), there wasn’t much enthusiasm before about an artificial construct. However, we now get tweets like this:
Now, first of all, this is factually incorrect. We never had a star, the number of stars on the EU flag have remained consistent since it was first designed and there isn’t one for each country. Secondly, notice the extreme language in the tweet. Someone announces themselves “broken” by the image. Come on. You are not broken by this. Broken (hearted) is when we are either personally hurt by someone’s cruel treatment of us or when we see intense evil and suffering in the world. I would be broken in grief if a close relative died suddenly, I was not broken when Tesco closed down its Bearwood store.
Hyperbolic language is being used and as it dominates it begins to shape our feelings and then how we relate to others. For the remain side, there is language of brokenness, hurt, fear. However, before they think that they are off the hook, consider how the Brexiteer side also stoked up the hyperbolic language about freedom, independence, sovereignty, patriotic influence in the world and yes about fear of the outsider too.
Now, if we are going to get along with one another in our communities and in our churches then we are going to need to rein in the hyperbole and open conversations designed to generate light and to convince rather than manipulate and generate heat. This is true about how we live life together after Brexit but it will also be true for things.
If the US is to get through the next year in one piece then the language of betrayal and stolen elections will need to be dialled down. Some of the language about Donald Trump will need to be tempered too.
If The Church is going to maintain unity then we are going to need to dampen down the hyperbole we have seen around coronavirus. Going around accusing people of disobeying God and worshipping the world because we disagree on how to engage with government health and safety regulations is not going to lead to unity in love and truth.
So, whilst I’ve given specific examples here, there is a more general point, especially for Christians. Is our language truthful and loving? Does it help or hinder? Does it build up or destroy. Let’s look carefully about how we talk and the words we use.