I've been thinking the past several days about the issue of violence in language. My Pastor, Dave Fitch, preached a sermon on this issue a couple of months ago which really made an impression on my thinking. He argued that we can hold to our truth claims in a spirit of violence, which attempts to get power over others and force them to see things our way. This involves the use of language and logic to shut down conversation and to demean those with whom one disagrees. I feel like ever since hearing that sermon I've noticed this verbal violence being practiced all the time, by people from across the spectrum of opinions and beliefs. I've noticed three specific ways in which this can take place:
1.) The speaker/author adopts a nasty, demeaning tone, or engages in name calling. This is the most obvious and unsubtle type of linguistic violence. For example, I was just recently given some writings by a liberal Catholic theologian who declares that anyone who claims to be pro-life but who supports the war in Iraq is a liar and a hypocrite. At one point, he also flippantly refers to the Christian doctrine of the attonement as "a lousy piece of theology." Many conservatives are just as bad. I know one conservative individual, for example, who regularly refers to liberals as stupid and morally deficient. To my mind, this kind of language is violence, pure and simple. It demeans and dehumanizes people. It declares from the outset that those with whom one disagrees are unworthy of even basic respect and human dignity.
2.) The speaker/author attributes bad motives to those he disagrees with. This is a little more subtle than the first category but has the same result. It completely shuts down the possibility of good faith discussion by declaring that anyone who doesn't share our point of view must be motivated by some hidden agenda. Therefore, they are unworthy of respect. Fine examples of this sort of linguistic violence can be found in the debate over creation and evolution. People on both sides of the debate regularly attribute bad motives to those on the other side. Many evolutionists regularly claim that anyone who questions the veracity of the theory of evolution as it is currently taught in public schools must harbor a secret agenda to establish a theocracy in America and persecute everyone who doesn't share their point of view. On the other side, many creationists act as if anyone who even considers the possibility of Darwinism being true must be either out to destroy the Christian faith or, if they profess to be a Christian, must be intentionally compromizing their Christian convictions out of cowardice. Of course, it is possible that any of these charges of bad motives is true. To assume such from the outset, however, results in viewing the other person as someone to be silenced rather than someone with a possibly valid perspective to be listened to and understood as much as possible.
3.) The speaker/author engages in the use of "guerilla logic." This term, "guerilla logic," comes from David Fitch. It refers to the use of logic as a means of simply winning arguments. It looks for weaknesses in the other persons position without really trying to understand what the other person is saying. It shuts down the possibility of conversation by declaring that the other person has engaged in faulty reasoning without really trying to hear what they are saying in all of it's nuances.
In each case these three types of linguistic violence do similar things. First, they attempt to assert our own views over those of another by either "winning" an argument, or by silencing the other person. Second, they often involve a refusal to understand or hear what the other person is saying. Those of us who profess to be Christians should take care to avoid these types of linguistic violence. We should be especially careful about the way we express our opinions, the way we share or defend our faith, and the way we interact with the opinions and beliefs of others. 1 Pet 3:15 admonishes us to share our faith with others in a spirit of gentleness and respect. If we speak and act in ways that contradict the spirit of the gospel, we falsify the very message we are trying to get across to people.