When the extreme knocks us off our accustomed stance, we may be placed in a better position to take a bearing on true north. During a recent Meeting for Worship (I am a Quaker), my thoughts were jolted far from their usual tracks by the words of a Friend recalling an early 19th century forebear of whom it was written: “she was so concerned to speak the truth that she scarcely spoke at all”.
One cannot help reflecting that this remarkable woman might have been a little difficult to live with. Nonetheless, the concept has a simple integrity which rebukes our culture's debased and profligate way with words.
Spoken language, with its vast array of register, meaning, mood and colour, is what most distinctly sets us apart from the rest of the mammals. Humans alone write poetry, make puns and utter the speeches which inspire faith, courage, endurance and compassion. The tender word-play of lovers and the enduring public orations of such great figures as Martin Luther King are close kin. One is for the sustenance of all that is intimate and private; the other is designed for, and rings through, history. Both take their power from the truths they express.
But eloquence and rhetoric are not the whole story. Words are most often employed in a utilitarian manner and it is in their function of connecting us with each other in all the commonplace situations of life that we may be most vulnerable to abuse of this unique gift.
Our society is uneasy about silence. We have all experienced – with a mix of irritation and sympathy – the inconsequential babble of the nervous conversationalist. Unable to sit with silence or to speak with the confidence which permits pause and consideration, these individuals hang words in the air with little reflection as to their meaning or care for their relevance. Sound is all.
This form of verbal incontinence has no malign intent. It is not employed to browbeat or to deceive and so it appears harsh to suggest that it may be inimical to truth. But the habit of using speech to avoid silence indicates a lack of reverence for both the act of communication and its content. This noisy, chattering habit overlies a deep fear and where there is fear, truth will always be the victim.
WH Auden expressed it with chilling clarity: “The lights must never go out/ the music must always play...Lest we should see where we are, /lost in a haunted wood, /Children afraid of the night/Who have never been happy or good.”
This is an age of instant and relentless communication. Blogs, social networking sites and
the extraordinary inanities which are the mainstay of Twitter, enable us to delude ourselves over
the relationship of information to knowledge and of knowledge to wisdom. The 24-hour news cycle
gives neither its gatherers nor its subjects time for pause. Not to have an instantly available opinion
is to run the risk of being thought inarticulate or ill-informed. Not many of us want to appear behind
the game so the temptation to offer a sound-bite or sharp riposte is ever present.
Honesty and respect for both accuracy and meaning may demand self-denial. Where we find the courage to admit uncertainty or to acknowledge that a topic may be too complex and nuanced for an
off-the-cuff response, the stream of our discourse runs clearer and deeper.
Abuse of the spoken word has the capacity to do considerable damage to the integrity of human communication and solidarity, even when its origins lie in anxiety and lack of confidence rather than in malice. But when words are used with a deliberate intent to coerce or deceive, the betrayal of individual integrity and communal trust is incalculable.
“A truth that's told with bad intent/Beats all the lies you can invent”. These lines from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence went straight to my heart when I first heard them as a very young child. The reason for that impact and for its continued power through half a century of life, is rooted in the example of my parents' earnest concern that truth-telling is a sacred charge. Truth, spoken with love, will never cause lasting offence. Truth distorted to suit the speaker, will never build lasting love. It is perhaps the most valuable legacy a child may receive.
Propaganda is amongst the worst perversions of language of which we are capable. It takes many forms. Heirs to a democratic tradition, we are usually capable of recognising and resisting it when it seeks to influence our social, spiritual and political thinking. But there is a more insidious form which entwines itself within our own belief systems (and here it is wise to be mindful of that
seductive conjugation “I have convictions; you have prejudices”) and with which we may collude in order to keep ourselves from perturbation.
GK Chesterton warned of this pernicious tendency when he wrote of “all the easy speeches that comfort cruel men.” The quaintly named Quaker book of discipline, 'Advices and Queries', reminds all who hold strong convictions of the necessity of honest audit: “think it possible that you may be mistaken”.
None of us are immune from the temptation of using words to score points, to gain advantage at the expense of others or to boost our own egos. But whenever we fail in recognition and resistance, we debase not only the currency of spoken and written communication, but also the very concept of truth as communicable and of respect for our interlocutor as a condition of that communication. If we would speak truth to power, we must first speak it to ourselves. And next, we must speak it in humility to those over whom we may hold power.
Perhaps it is only by speaking less, listening more generously and holding words in greater reverence that we will come closer to the way of the man who was described as embodying that incomprehensible power which was with the Divine from all eternity: the Word made flesh.
© Jill Segger is a Quaker. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is Ekklesia's assistant editor. She is also a composer. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger
Also by Jill Segger on Ekklesia: 'Beyond cultural timidity and moral confusion' - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9359