Words, I Think

Mandi recently graduated from high school. She’s a lover of Shakespeare and a bright young lady with a promising future as an educator. Yet I remember a time when her verbal abilities far outshone her literary skills. It was her third birthday, and she sat next to her dad as she opened a card from Terri. Mandi’s eyes shone wide as three one-dollar bills fell out, and she immediately dropped the card to collect the money. Her dad said, “Well wait, Mandi—you didn’t even look at the card. What does it say?” With great disinterest she glanced at the card which was laden with Terri’s neat handwriting—she’s an amazing and encouraging note writer!—and said dismissively, “Words, I think.”

Words. As a high school English teacher, a former preacher, and a newspaper reporter before that, words have always been the tools with which I ply my trade. I believe in the power of words. I love how the Bible refers to Jesus as “the Word”—He is God’s way of communicating most clearly and effectively with human beings. (For a vivid example, see the first chapter of the Gospel of John.)

That’s why I froze a couple years ago when we were studying Romeo and Juliet and Aaron, one of my all-time favorite students, quipped, “Why does Shakespeare use so many extra words?” I froze because dozens of possible replies jammed in my mouth all at once. Simply put, Shakespeare uses “so many extra words” because his desire is to communicate.

My fear is that today we don’t use enough words. And when we do, we often use them to confuse rather than clarify. I’m continually affronted because of this particular deep conviction of mine: Words mean something!

Rather than using words to communicate—which is their most basic intended function—we hide behind words. Too often we don’t say what we mean or mean what we say. This is especially true in the public, and particularly political, realm. Before an issue comes to a vote, we see signs with messages like “Proposition 7: Vote Yes to Education for Your Community!” Or on the other side: “Proposition 7: Vote No to Prostitution in Your Community!” When in reality, Proposition 7 on its surface is not about education nor prostitution, but the simple question as to whether or not a community should allow a casino to be built in its midst. Wait, what? Why not just say that?

Words are symbols. They’re letters representing sounds which, strung together, convey meaning. But symbols only work if they’re understood. If different people have differing understandings of what a symbol means, communication breaks down completely. For example, look at the commotion surrounding kneeling during the national anthem. A few months ago kneeling meant you were a traitor. Now not kneeling means you’re a racist. How did this happen? The national anthem, and the American flag, are symbols that have varying meanings. The young widow whose husband was killed in combat is livid at the sight of the millionaire athlete taking a knee; meanwhile the millionaire athlete whose cousin was a victim of police brutality is livid at the young widow for not supporting his just cause. Who is right? Who is wrong? Is it possible that the athlete is not a traitor and the widow is not a racist? Is it possible that maybe they both support veterans and both oppose racism? Then what’s happening here? What’s happening is that two people are attributing entirely different meanings to the same symbol.

Now multiply that scenario by 350 million people, and welcome to the “United” States of America in 2020.

The beauty of symbols is that they can communicate complex ideas instantly and simply. It’s the idea behind the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. But if the image is not clear, then we need those thousand words.

This is how we got to the point that saying something as plainly virtuous and true as “All Lives Matter” can cost someone their job. We need to use more words, not less! A perfect illustration of this is the picture floating around the Internet of a little girl holding a sign that reads:


That is perfectly clear. Simply throwing around phrases like “Black lives matter” and “All lives matter” and pitting them against one another is an exercise in totally missing the point. A conversation that goes, “Black lives matter.” “All lives matter!” is absurd because it ends up with two sides engaging in an emotional dispute over an issue that they probably both agree on! Borrowing a few of Shakespeare’s “extra words” would go a long way toward aligning our energies for the common good rather than pitting us against one another on issues that we don’t even truly disagree about.

Just yesterday a debate raged on my Facebook page about what people mean by “defund the police.” In comments and private text messages, this common phrase was explained as meaning abolish, dismantle, reform, or reallocate. Notice that we actually have words to convey the meanings of abolish, dismantle, reform, or reallocate. Here they are: abolish, dismantle, reform, and reallocate. Defund means to defund. Why can’t we all just say what we really mean? That would help us get quickly to the heart of issues so that when we truly disagree, we can at least understand each other and know at what point we disagree; and it would also help us to reach consensus on important topics about which we do agree, but don’t realize it because we use different terms—or misuse terms—in our discussions.

Another danger of substituting slogan-slinging instead of actually communicating with words is that we can easily communicate the opposite of what we intend. Let me give you an example: Another post making the rounds in social media references Jesus’ parable in Luke 15 about the missing sheep. One version of this post condescendingly says to “crack open your Bible” and read about how Jesus left the 99 sheep to go after the one, and this one missing sheep is then understood to be black people. But if you do actually crack open your Bible and read the parable, you’ll see that Jesus concludes it with, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). When we take Jesus’ words out of context and misapply them, it backfires; it ends up equating black people with sinners and white people with “righteous persons who need no repentance.” How racist is that? Is this what Jesus meant? Of course not. (Jesus is not even discussing race relations in this parable.) Is this what people mean when they share that post? Of course not, they’re actually trying to convey an entirely different message. But when we speak through misappropriated sound bites rather than well-developed thoughts, the fruit is miscommunication.

And that doesn’t even begin to touch on how it seems everyone is taking snippets from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to try to support their point of view….

Words can be used to communicate. That’s actually why we have them. Words exist not to blur the truth but to express the truth. We have words to shine light on reality, not to obscure it in shadow.

Let’s bring back some of those “extra words.” Let’s drop the whole façade of slogans and clichés and half-truths and deliberate misdirection. If we set aside our mottoes and catch phrases that we wield to win arguments, and instead seek to understand and to be understood, we can once more communicate clearly with love and mutual respect.  How do we do this?

Words, I think.

Published in: on June 9, 2020 at 11:19 am  Comments (2)