The Frosting is Poison

Since my last blog post, an alleged nutcase allegedly tried to assassinate a politician, and in the process allegedly murdered a bunch of innocent people, and now I am allegedly pissed off.

Now, I don’t usually feel the need to comment on the latest big news story, something that everyone else is already commenting on, in fact I usually avoid it. But recent events in Tucson have demonstrated something that’s been increasing over time since… I don’t know when.

Gone are the days when you could assume that rational people would hear what you have to say and take it rationally, that they would understand that you don’t take figures of speech literally, and that sometimes it’s ok to use hyperbole (exaggeration) to make a point. So not only am I mad that an alleged nutcase allegedly killed some innocent people, I’m also mad that now I allegedly have to be careful about everything I allegedly say. I have to weigh my alleged words, and wonder how they will be heard by the alleged lowest common denominator of American intelligence. I take offense at this because I fancy myself a bit of a wordsmith: a writer, and a songwriter. I like the idea of crafting words for eloquence, not just for utilitarian communication. I like the idea that words can be esthetically pleasing, or even entertaining.

But this is just one more case of someone ruining it for the rest of us. Actually, there are two groups of people who have ruined words for the rest of us. The first group is the obvious one: the idiots. The mouth-breathing imbeciles who take everything literally and can’t see the nuances of allegory and metaphor. For them it’s all or nothing, everything is in the extreme. These are the ones who kill people for disagreeing with them.

The other group is not usually as obvious, but they have been getting some attention this past week. These are the people who get so worked up over their beliefs that they actually increase the polarization between them and their opponents. Don’t get me wrong, I respect the passion with which people (on both sides of the debates) hold to their beliefs. But the urgency of the issues drives some to cross the line from hyperbole to inflammatory. Where does freedom of speech end and hate speech begin? When does adamant become irresponsible?

Now it’s confession time… years ago, I used to listen to Rush Limbaugh. Yeah, yeah, I know… If you’re not a Rush fan, rest assured that I stopped listening to him when he went over the top. Oh, you might think he was always over the top, but it’s not true. I’m talking 20 years ago – but then he got popular, and started playing to his audience. And that’s were it goes wrong. Like a toddler who realizes he can make the adults laugh by making a fart sound, he just keeps doing it. That’s what Rush did, he realized he had an audience who thought he could do no wrong, so he went to the extreme, catering to the most radical element, and he soaked up the applause. Now, if you are a Rush fan, that’s ok, too, because sometimes he was right. He used to criticize the left for engaging in what he called “rhetoric without substance.” Well now the shoe is on the other foot – it’s the second verse, same as the first – same song, but different singers. As I see it, this is the problem: rhetoric without substance, or rhetoric that goes far beyond the substance.

Words without substance are like frosting without the cake. In fact, the frosting has replaced the cake – but it’s poisoned. What was once fluff is now toxic. People feel so strongly about something that they push the rhetoric to the extreme in order to press their point, with the result that the rhetoric escalates the anger on both sides of the issue.

Unfortunately, we live in a frosting world, where every day has to be a party, and everything has to be taken to the extremes. Just like people try to cram a year’s worth of fun into New Year’s eve, it’s as if the simple joys and blessings of life were the gateway high, but now we all need something more adrenaline-soaked just to feel alive. We have even created churches that cater to entertainment over deeper spirituality. I have literally been to churches where I left saying, “Well I’ve had the frosting, but I didn’t get the cake – I’ve had the A1, but I didn’t get the steak.”

As my students know, one of my favorite films is the classic, Brother Sun, Sister Moon. In this not-so-historically-accurate portrayal of the life of St. Francis of Assisi, Francis says wistfully, “Words… there was a time when I believed in words…

Have we gotten to the point where words have become meaningless? As an author, I hope not. But I am disturbed by our attraction to sound bites rather than depth, and freak shows (also known as reality shows) over meaning. [Case in point: I’m told a blog should not be over 500 words. I’m up to 870, so sue me.]

So what’s the solution? It’s not about guns, it’s about words. Guns don’t kill people, words kill people (or, they get people killed). I think the first thing is to remember my personal motto: The Truth is In the Middle. You may feel strongly that something is wrong, but don’t go to the other extreme – usually that’s just as wrong. Find the place of balance and compromise. Join me as a Goldiloxian! The second thing is to remember our parents’ advice: if I can’t say something nice about someone, I need to shut up (yeah, I know – I just finished calling people idiots and imbeciles – I already admitted I’m a hypocrite in the book). I’m not saying we can’t speak out against injustice or even against a particular point of view – we can speak against things, but not against people. Let’s always try to remember that our opponents are children of God, with families and friends who love them.

Finally, I pray that God will help me remember the old adage that God has given us two ears, but only one mouth. So I want to learn to listen more than I talk, and before I talk. And when I talk, I don’t want to trade substance for empty rhetoric (because, as a word guy, this is a real temptation). I don’t want to forget that people are more important than concepts, even more important than causes. And I don’t want to use rhetoric as a substitute for action – because this can make us isolate ourselves, surrounding ourselves only with those who agree with us, and escalate our anger against people we will never meet.

But enough about me and my concern over words. The focus should be on the victims, and we should not let the fact that this sort of thing happens far too often lull us into just sighing and getting on with our lives. Please join me in prayer for the victims, their families, and yes, even the (alleged) nutcase. And now, since my strong feelings about this subject have already caused me to fail in following my own advice, I’ll shut up, and let St. Francis have the last word:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love…

Jim Papandrea

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About Jim Papandrea

Jim Papandrea is an author, educator, and singer/songwriter. Visit his website at: www.JimPapandrea.com
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3 Responses to The Frosting is Poison

  1. Nick Cardilino says:

    Jim, I love you and have the deepest admiration for everything you do, and I usually agree with you, especially because I too believe that the truth is in the middle. But I have to say that I’m really confused about what you’re saying about words–their power and the importance of choosing the right ones. Are words powerful or not? Should we, as followers of Christ, call people out when they use hyperbole inappropriately or not? I understand what you’re saying about not wanting to have a censorship state, but you are also clearly someone who really values good word choice and the importance of using words for the good of the Kingdom of God. So, does someone with God-given gifts of charisma and/or the ability to write well also have a responsibility to use those gifts for the common good? Or should we all just shut up in the name of civil liberties when they use, for example, metaphors of violence? Although it doesn’t happen on a regular basis, history has shown numerous examples of violent speech inciting and supporting those afflicted with mental illness to commit acts of violence. I personally do not subscribe to the principles of the ACLU because I believe that some things ought not be said/broadcast/written in certain circumstances, particularly violent things. Words do have power. May you keep using yours, my friend!!!

    In Christ,

    Nick

    • Hey Nick – first of all, thanks for reading my blog, and for reading it so carefully. Your response asks some important questions. Maybe my comments seem confusing because I’m also asking some hard questions, without really coming up with good answers. I think what I’m saying is that I’m calling for people to police themselves, so that we don’t come to the point where we need censorship to protect the public. I’m calling for people to be responsible with their words (and I will try to do the same), but I don’t want to have to police others and I don’t want others policing me. Especially when it comes to religion because we as Christians have to have the freedom to share our faith without having someone say that sharing our faith is hate speech against their faith. I don’t feel it’s my calling to call others out when they go too far, but I reserve the right to tune them out if they do. But I think you and I agree that we should not go to the other extreme of saying nothing. And I certainly don’t want other people telling me to shut up. I would rather police the nutcases (like preventing them from buying guns) than police the speakers. Thanks again for your comments. I appreciate the dialogue! – JP

  2. Nick Cardilino says:

    Ah! Got it! I agree!

    I still do think we ought to call people out on their use of violent words and images in the media.

    In Christ,

    Nick

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