Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Speaking Violence

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.


Mutter said...
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Mutter said...

Hey man, love your blog (this is Judah). Preach it. One thing I thought about as I read your last post was this:
Though I agree with you in being against “violent” linguistic tactics, I think we there is also something to be said about not going too far the other way.
To me facts are boring on their own. In a way, facts are for robots. We don’t deal with statements or words, we deal with people. That’s why the violence is bad; although, that does not mean we should shy away from dealing directly with people’s motives and feelings in debate. By “dealing” I don’t necessarily mean that we should speak about their needs, rather we should debate with those needs in mind.
With gentleness and respect as the boundaries for the arena of debate, we should feel free to employ tactics of strategy and maybe even manipulation. Manipulation might be too pejorative of a word. However, within the subjective realm of communication, can we employ tricks to move people? Not towards harm, towards understanding. Relating insight and revelation are the goals. Can we use a little strategy to get there? I don’t know for sure, but I think yes.
I hope this does not come off as contradicting your entry. Building off of your entry, I think that violent tactics are bad…and at the same time that tactics are good. No?

David Fitch said...

Dude... great post ... obvious and real every day experience ... especially on talk radio.. both left and right ... Oh .. now if we Christians could come together in another way ..and our interactions with non believers be carried out in a way different than Rush Linbaugh ...

waiting for your next post ...

Gordon Hackman said...

Judah and Dave, thanks so much for your great comments.

Judah, regarding the issue of tatics in argumentation/discussion, I have to admit that I am prima facie uncomfortable with the idea of using tricks or manipulation, even to get people someplace good. It somehow seems to me that if we use tricks in an attempt to move people, that we are not really respecting them as persons who have the ability to choose for themselves what they will believe or not believe.

On the other hand, though, I wholeheartedly agree with you that we are dealing with people who are not just brains, but who are complex, intertwined bundles of motives, needs, feelings, etc. I do not think it is necessarily bad to have an idea of where we want to take a person, and attempt to lead them there through both persuasion and challenge, or even through a series of questions that may reveal to them things they couldn't see at first. Asking a series of questions was the way that Socrates would often take his discussion partners to a certain conclusion.

Jesus himself seems to use certain tactics in getting his message across to people, especially the Pharisees, who were, of course, always trying to use tactics to trap him. I think there is something important in that though. Jesus often spoke in cryptic ways (i.e. parables) that his hearers did not immediately comprehend, but the only time he seemed to use tactics that might be called tricky was in repsonse to others trying to trick him. I think this is an example of what you refer to as dealing with people's motives. Jesus knew the motives of the Pharisees were bad and he ruthlessly exposed them. I think that us fallen human beings, however, need to be pretty careful about this kind of thing, even if we are reasonably certain we know our opponents/discussion partner's motives.

So, I don't think there is anything wrong with trying to move people forward in a debate or discussion by speaking to them as whole people and keeping their motives, needs, etc. in mind, but I still think that whenever we do this we need to take great care that we do not slip into some form of violence or manipulation, and end up treating them as less than a person.