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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Calling A Spade A Spade

Popular science fiction author China Miéville is troubled by how the media refers to the … er … troubled.

When asked about the 2011 riots in London, England, his primary concern seems to be the language used to describe those who assaulted pensioners, burned people out of their homes and threw bricks at responding firefighters:
“For a long time I’ve been struck and horrified by the incredible cultural spite we’ve got in the UK towards young people. The constant use, for example, of the term ‘feral’ to describe troubled children should be a matter of utter shame: that our culture has normalised that adjective is an expression of our culture’s moral degradation, far more than children’s.”
In Miéville’s view, the moral degradation of modern British culture is epitomized in its failure to speak kindly of its most debased element.

Those who reported the London riots rather than simply opining about them might point out that Miéville’s “young people” and “troubled children” averaged almost 23 years of age and were 91.6% male.

In spite of this, Mr. Miéville considers it “incredible cultural spite”, “an utter shame” and “moral degradation” to use to word “feral” to describe adult human beings who behave themselves worse than animals. He is not alone in this. So-called progressive writers and opinionators (Miéville is a Marxist) often take the intellectual position that the way we describe the perpetrators of criminal acts is as bad as or worse than the act itself. Some people seem to feel it is more offensive to call someone a “slut” or “whore” than to make one’s living at it.

It’s “hate speech”, dontcha know.

Should Christians take this sort of thing seriously? Is it unkind or shameful to call a spade a spade?

A short list of biblical examples may suffice to provide a counterbalancing view:

·        “You brood of vipers” (John the Baptist)
·        “You blind fools!” (Jesus Christ)
·        “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (the apostle Paul) 
·        “… ignorant and unstable people” (Peter) 
·        “You adulterous people!” (James)

That is just the tip of a very large iceberg of “spite”, “shame” and “moral degradation”, if we are to adopt Mr. Miéville’s standard of acceptable language; a tiny representative sample of the sorts of things said about those who, well, DESERVE them.

Explaining away such Scriptural language as criticizing “the conduct, not the person” clearly will not suffice. In each instance and many others, the writer of the word of God is describing character, not particular actions, as deficient, sinful, debased, unintelligent, hypocritical, moronic or wrong.

The Other Side

The political and cultural Left loves to engage in propaganda and rarely presents both sides of an issue but since we don’t play by their rules, let’s stop to undermine our own argument for a moment. Does Mr. Mieville actually have a point? What about Scriptures that condemn the use of insulting language? For instance:

·        “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers” (James)
·        “Let your speech always be gracious” (Paul)
·        “Do not repay … insult with insult” (Peter)

There are more verses that might be interpreted to weight the scales on the other side of the question too. I know Christians who understand such passages to teach that we should never express a negative opinion about anyone or anything. Are they right?

Stating the Obvious

You will notice that Paul encourages gracious speech, then refers to Cretans as “liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons”. Peter tells us not to be insulting, then refers to those who distort the word of God as “ignorant and unstable”. Even James speaks about taming the tongue while calling people “adulterous”.

We might put this down to mere human inconsistency if such statements were made off the cuff in a context that is merely historical. Because while Bible history is just as inspired as anything else in Scripture in that it is a faithful record of what went on, historical narrative simply informs us what was said — as when Paul unknowingly referred to a high priest as a “whited wall” and later retracted his words. Historical narrative rarely includes the writer’s opinion as to whether what was said was actually correct, appropriate to voice, or whether it should serve as an example to us.

But these statements of the apostles are made in the Holy Spirit-inspired epistles in the context of teaching. They cannot be mere ‘slips’ for which Peter, Paul or James will readily apologize when we bring the issue up with them in glory.

So, no, it’s not inconsistency in the writers of Scripture at work here.

Furthermore, what are we to make of the statements of the Lord, which seem equally harsh or even harsher?

The problem is that we are comparing apples and oranges.

The Difference between Insults and Correction

The redefinition of words and corruption of language in the age of tolerance has rendered many people ill-equipped to distinguish between “hate”, “insults”, “prejudice” and a simple, truthful description of certain kinds of debased human conduct and character. We are afraid to call a spade a spade.

But hurling insults out of hatred (or even describing young thugs as, well, “young thugs”), out of disinterest or out of lack of sympathy for the conditions of poverty is something completely different from the accurate diagnosis of a condition that desperately cries out to be addressed. Such a diagnosis is not only healthy and necessary; it is considerably more loving than merely excusing sin.

The difference is all about intent.

When Paul tells Titus about the natural inclination of the inhabitants of Crete to be gluttonous, lazy and to lie (oops, I’m forgetting “evil brutes”), he is not being racist or gratuitously insulting. He is not engaged in “tearing down the healthy self-image” of the poor Cretans. Not in the least. He is relating a problem so systemic and facts so far beyond dispute that even other Cretans agreed with him. And since these are other believers he is describing, his purpose is both loving and corrective. He goes on to tell Titus: “rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth.”

That’s not “hate speech”, folks; that’s a diagnosis in aid of a cure. It’s exactly what was needed in Crete. But without a clear, un-PC assessment of the problem, the issue could not possibly be addressed.

Whenever we, motivated by love, utilize language that accurately reflects reality — even when that language seems harsh — we stand firmly in the tradition of both the Lord and the apostles.

A spade remains a spade whether we choose to call it that or not.

1 comment :

  1. Well said.

    These days we hear a lot about "slut shaming," as if that were somehow a terrible thing to do. But I can't see why, if someone had abundantly merited the word "slut" by her or his overt and repeated behaviour, we should be upset for allowing "shame" to be associated with their actions or character.

    If offence at the word is all people are concerned about, we could always speak of "slattern shaming," or "prostitute shaming," or "adulteress shaming," or whatever.

    But I think it's the "shame" part they don't like, not the "slut" part.

    So I wish I could ask them, "In your view, then, at what point would a promiscuous man or woman *deserve* shaming?" In fact, is there really *any* point at which our society thinks *anyone* could *ever* merit shame?

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