08 September 2009

On Language and Civil Discourse

This week, President Obama is going to address the nation on the matter of healthcare reform. This is, in part, a response to a great deal of mudslinging that has taken place over the last few weeks, where labels such as "communist" and "Nazi" have been used both widely and incorrectly by opponents of this bill.

There are a huge number of legitimate discussions that we can--should be--having around the health care legislation, but we can't because we are overwhelmed by words such as death panels, rationing, and socialist.

My goal here is not to address the health care debate, but rather to talk about the uses and abuses of language. It occurred to me, while watching the debate, that this is something that comes up in religious debates (and any talk about BDSM, for that matter) all of the time. We see words bandied about that, even if they are true, are getting in the way of the important parts of the debate.

As the quote (attributed to Gautama Buddha, but disputed) goes, Words have the power to both destroy and heal.

These terms may--or may not--be honest expressions of feeling, but they are not honest, factual evaluations that others can or should use to make decisions. When emotive terms get used in these ways they tend to distort the debate and interfere with the process of rational decision making which, I tend to think, is precisely the point.

This is especially true when those words have meaning and are being used out of context (e.g., Nazi) but it also applies to more straightforward emotional judgements, such as vile. Not that these words do not have use in public discourse, but it frequently seems that they are substituted for actual judgement, or to sway or convince people who might otherwise be undecided.

It is one thing to conclude that certain behavior is contemptible and to start out by calling another person contemptible. I've seen some statements that were so ridden with such statements that, while the author's vitriol was plain, I learned nothing of use about the group or individuals of whom they were speaking.

This seems to be particularly true in both religious and political discussions, where people seem to be quick to judge, quick to say UR DOIN IT WRONG, quick to dismiss, and slow to understand. Such tactics, however, get in the way of actual discussion about the important differences and can actually hurt the accusers argument.

This is, in essence, a plea for civility in public discourse on these matters. Please, by all means, continue to call others out when you see something amiss or to bring things to the light that need to be discussed, both in the political and religious arena. These are good and valuable things, but they need to be done with an eye toward civil discourse and an understanding that not everyone in the room necessarily is starting from the same premises.

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