One of our dearest and most valued gifts is our ability to both think about and talk about ourselves. That is the gift of language. I have always felt that every living thing has some sort of language, but we are so lucky to be able to communicate through speech and writing.
I spend a fair amount of time wrestling with the latter. When it is working, life is good. When it is not going so well, which has been the case lately, turning to other tasks for a time seems to do the trick. My wont during these funks is to steep myself in mostly physical activities. As I said to my neighbor John last week while we were stacking firewood underneath the protective cover of my new woodshed roof, these hours outside slogging wood to the woodshed by sled and 36-year-old wheelbarrow bereft of its sides and front, have served as writing down time that have resulted in the effortless recapture of ideas, this time replete with the trappings of meaning, relevance and content.
Ideas come and go. Ideas worth thinking about and, perhaps, writing about, are rare. The rarity of thought worth sharing appears to be a minority view these days. Given the predominance of all manner of social media, we live in an age when speech precedes thought. This has led to what I consider to be a denigration of the beauty and power of language. Technology is the tail wagging the dog.
Millions of people now have the ability to hurl thoughtless gibberish at one another. A few weeks ago while listening to the radio, a young woman, obviously articulate and bright, told of seeing something on television she described as utterly ridiculous. She then tweeted something equally ridiculous to a friend about what she had seen. The imprudent first thoughts of politicians and other public figures are often posted online and shared on television newscasts without any thought given to their value or relevance.
In most cases, some thoughtful editorial oversight would have precluded most from seeing the light of day. I suspect a random sampling of the millions of tweets that litter cyberspace daily would net an impressive catch of equally silly, utterly useless jabber.
My mother used to admonish me if I went overboard in some way by reminding me that moderation still reigned as the most reasonable way to approach things, whether eating or communicating.
My generation was reminded often that it was best to keep your mouth shut if you had nothing nice to say. We were frequently reminded of the virtue of respectful silence. We were taught the perils of hurling sticks and stones at one another, often reminded that words were harmless. Over time my view of this well-intentioned observation has reversed itself. Language is an immensely powerful tool that is as capable of doing harm as it is of being deeply hurtful. Skin lacerations heal; the effects of lacerating words can scar a psyche indefinitely, if not forever. And all too often advocates of certain perspectives lash out at those who hold counter views as if one size or world view fit all.
Examples of uncivil discourse abound. For instance, it is considered by some to be an unforgivable act of appeasement to look for ways of approaching complex international conflicts without resorting to putting “boots on the ground.” Ironically, all too often the most insistent advocates of this approach have neither worn a pair of military boots nor experienced the horrors of combat firsthand.
As viewed from some quarters, anyone favoring a system of national health care is either a socialist or even un-American. Several politicians have even gone so far as to suggest scores of members of Congress are communists.
Newspapers abound with strident, epithet-laced, diatribes against individuals whose crime is differing with the writer’s ideological bent. All too often those with alternative perspectives of issues are described in the nastiest of ways. Ad hominem attacks have become the rule, not the exception.
In so many ways we pay lip service to dissent in this country. Too many individuals are far too certain of their infallibility. If we are to bridge the many gaps — social, economic, political, and religious — that characterize our national culture, then we must find ways of using language in ways that neither denigrate nor ignore difference.
Far too often thoughtless speech finds its way into our public discourse. The fix we find ourselves in these days is the irresponsible application of language in search of reasonable solutions to common problems. It is time to use language to bring us together, not tear us apart.