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…