Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen- 2nd Timothy 2:14 NIV
Words have become a weird little neurotic obsession.
In Great Britain a person can be sentenced to seven years in prison for saying anything another person and at least one witness conclude is racist, insulting, threatening or disorderly. It is tempting to dismiss the Brits as high-strung for outlawing something as inane and difficult to define as “disorderly speech”. That is exactly the sort of silly nonsense along with tea and stamp taxes that led our founders to cut ties with Mother England in the first place.
However, we are not far behind our British counterparts when it comes to prudishness over words. The Massachusetts state legislature is currently debating a bill that would ban the use of a decidedly not-nice word that begins with B and rhymes with ditch. There would be legal consequences for anyone who uses the “B-word” word to “accost”, “annoy”, “degrade” or “demean” someone. As a female I am not, nor have I ever been a huge fan of that word. Nonetheless, I have some reservations about banning that or any word.
But, there’s more:
Residents of New York City can be fined up to 250,000 dollars for using the term “illegal alien”. Berkley adopted a “gender-neutral speech ordinance” “Manholes” are now “maintenance holes” and “he” and “her” have been replaced with “they” and “them”. New York and California fine people for calling someone by a non-preferred pronoun. Believe it or not, Christians were among the first to obsess over words. There has been active movement in Christianity for years to forbid the use of words that non-Christians might possibly find confusing.
The President offends with his words more than anyone in the history of forever. Since day one he has routinely used words that even his most ardent supporters have thought crude and unnecessary. Those same words have caused his critics to go apoplectic with rage on an almost daily basis. POTUS was back at it again this week. He used the word lynching to describe Democratic attempts to impeach him.
Lynching is not a nice word or a nice thing. It is a stain on the soul of our nation that lynching was used to control, terrorize and punish black men in America for decades with few if any consequences for those who instigated the executions. I will concede that lynching was a poorly chosen word. Although, to be fair, he is not the first person to describe an impeachment as a lynching. That word was bandied about quite a bit during Bill Clinton’s impeachment process.
One problem with focusing obsessively on words is that our fixation inevitably causes us to become distracted from the issues at hand. The lynching fracas is a relevant example. Every pundit in the Western hemisphere has ranted incessantly about that word for a solid week. I have personally been exposed to hours of commentary on the subject. What the word means, its history, how long the word has existed, why the word bothers people and the history of people who have been affected by lynch mobs. None of this is wrong. It would be a colossal tragedy to forget those people wronged by that repugnant practice. That being said, our collective focus on one stupid word has done a beautiful job of throwing everyone in the whole stinking country neatly off topic. We have forgotten all about the issue at hand and the debate we should be having which is the rightness or wrongness of this impeachment.
Something similar took place in the church with words and phrases like “sin”, “born-again”, “saved”, “believe”, “trust in Jesus”, “make a profession of faith” and “ask Jesus into your heart”. Many leaders in the 1980’s became razer-focused on the fact that some people found those words confusing. The actual problem was not with the words. The problem was that people were confused by words that were critical to grasping the essentials of the Christian faith. Instead of finding ways to make those words more understandable and accessible to people, many churches stopped using some legit Bible words. Twenty-five years later many Christians cannot adequately explain the meaning of most of those words or lead non-Christians to faith in Christ, as a result, conversions have plummeted.
Another problem with focusing on words is it keeps us from dealing with the heart attitudes that cause people to use terrible words. I guarantee you that criminalizing the B-word will not make men any more respectful of women in their hearts. It could in fact have the opposite effect. Some men might think that if women are so thin-skinned that a word has to be forbidden to make them feel “safe” then women really are weak, silly and not worthy of respect. Criminalizing words does not change hearts. Education and exposure to different kinds of people does.
Words matter but not in the way some people think. Words have the power to inform, shape a narrative, change minds and can be the stimulus that sparks transformation in people and cultures. However, words do not have the power to cause people any real harm. They are just abstract ideas not little tiny knives that rip at our flesh. Outlawing words will make us dumber, less able to articulate truth and more easily fooled.
Nobody wants that.