Taking responsibility for language

The impact of the US election result (and the EU referendum in the UK) is, of course, not limited just to changing who gets to pull the levers of power. In both cases the political result is accompanied by a shift in the language in which we all live. Quite suddenly, new forms of speaking and listening are coming to the fore, while others move to the background.

In both countries it has quickly become much more acceptable to use harsh and violently discriminatory language – against minorities and against all those who disagree – in the public sphere, on the street, in our institutions. Simultaneously, certain kinds of speech have become less possible. This shift, of course, has been both modelled and encouraged by prominent political figures such as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, and it has been amplified by press coverage and the now widely-reported ‘echo chamber’ of social media.

But whatever politicians do, it’s when our own ways of speaking with one another cheapen and coarsen in this way, and when it spreads into our communities and homes, our work and our casual social interactions, that the world changes. Actions that would not have been possible before become possible again, ordinary even. And as all this happens, we change too.

As Marcus Zusack points out in his beautiful novel ‘The Book Thief‘ – a passionate hymn to the power of language and silence to both destroy and to redeem – the profound and shocking shifts in German society during the dark times of Nazism were constructed first in words and only second in action. For most of my adult life I thought we had learned this, and that the horrors of two world wars had taught us the importance of a society that can largely take care of language and reason, even in the face of occasional lapses and challenges. Today, it seems to me that we need to learn it all over again.

It won’t do to imagine that the situation will get better by itself. It’s going to take the purposeful day-to-day action of many of us to do this.

Now is a time that we must renew our commitment to take care of language, cherish it, and restore its redemptive capacity. We have to work hard to protect the capacity of language to disclose truth and compassion, and not let it fall into a dangerous disrepair.

It is going to take nothing less than each of us taking care of our own way of speaking and listening, our words and our silence. It’s going to take us teaching our children how to stand apart from a public discourse which vilifies and demeans, which bends reason out of all recognition and tramples on dignity. It’s going to mean us being vigilant about our own language and standing up daily (at work, on the bus) whenever language is used to wound and distort. And it’s going to take from each of us – you and me – a daily and unending practice of defending the capacity of language to dignify and reveal, to connect and heal, and actively resisting its use to diminish and separate, to wound and make people afraid.

Photo Credit: C. Strife Flickr via Compfight cc

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