Saturday, January 21, 2017

I Mean It, I Swear

An international team of university researchers concludes that people who curse more are less likely to lie and may possess more integrity than their politer peers.

What fascinates me about the study is not its rather pedestrian conclusions, which are all too predictable given the initial assumptions of psychologist Gilad Feldman and his team. After all, garbage in, garbage out, right?

No, it’s really the assumptions they make about the meaning of honesty that ought to cause Christians to stop and think.

Why? Because apparently the word no longer means what it once did.

Ugh. Not again.

Biblical Honesty

So here we go: When Christians speak of an “honest man”, we mean a man upon whose testimony we can rely. When an honest person speaks, we know that it is just so. The integrity of this sort of individual is evident in three distinct ways:

Firstly, as the writer of Proverbs puts it:
“Whoever speaks the truth gives honest evidence, but a false witness utters deceit.”
To call a man “honest”, in traditional or biblical terms, is to make a statement about the content of his message; the evidence. His words are accurate and reliable. They conform to observable reality. They are not false.

Secondly, it is also a statement about the man’s motives. The sons of Jacob tell Joseph, “We are honest men. Your servants have never been spies.” Here honesty means an absence of ill will. The brothers mean to say they have no concealed agenda that might prove harmful to the land of Egypt.

Finally, Paul sets honesty in contrast to theft:
“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”
Honest work is work that adds value rather than stealing it. The implication is that an honest individual is a good citizen. He or she is a net giver rather than a net taker. This is true whether we are speaking of imparting information or producing material goods.

This, then, is the scriptural view of honest speech: accurate content, an absence of ill will, giving rather than taking.

“Feeeeeeelings ... Nothing More Than Feeeeeelings ...”

However, in Gilad Feldman’s study, “honesty” means something quite different. Here, an “honest” man or woman is someone whose edgy speech accurately reflects a heart that is troubled, or grieved, or offended, or angry. People speak profanely because the content of their hearts is profane.

In Feldman’s world, to call a man honest is not to make a statement about the content of his message, but a statement about his feelings. Thus, a woman who holds her tongue when angry is being less “honest”, in the terms of the Feldman study, than the woman who lets loose with a volley of verbal abuse. The screaming harpy is being “true to herself”. She’s all on the surface where we can see it.

This is evident even when Feldman and his team explain the meaning of their own terminology. Dishonesty is defined as “a generalized personal inclination to obscure the truth in natural, everyday life situations” [emphasis mine].

In this context, “truth” is a euphemism for “How the speaker really feels”. Someone who is angry but presents as calm is, in the view of the study, a liar. Someone who is sad but has managed to pull themselves together is thought to be dissembling.

Nobody stops to think about remaining true to our will, our better judgment or, worse, our duty. What matters is that when I flap my gums, everybody knows which emotions are raging through me.

Wanna Know My Status?

This is, to put it delicately, a bit bonkers. But we can easily understand how it happens, can’t we?

We live in a society that knows little of self-control and conflates full disclosure à la Facebook with truth-telling; a world in which emotions carry greater weight than words. Where our kids set their online status to a teary yellow animated emoticon and imagine they have conveyed something profound to their viewers. Where “truth” could be most accurately allegorized by following you into a public washroom and leaning over the stall with a camera in hand. Nothing else is quite visceral enough for the masses.

Our level of agitation is taken to be a better predictor of authenticity than whether what we say conforms to reality.

Clam Up, Jack!

Needless to say, this is not how the Christian lives. When the writer of Proverbs notes that:
“Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise when he closes his lips,”
it seems clear the fool would NOT be better off babbling away uncontrollably.

Later, we are told:
“A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.”
“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”
There is great value in accurate testimony, but there is zero spiritual merit in a sea of foaming emotional blather. And yet the latter hews closer to the spirit of the new “honest”.

Give Me That Dictionary!

The world around us has changed its vocabulary. Again. And I expect it will be next-to-impossible to change it back. After all, fighting with people about the meaning of words does not get them saved. We might score a few brownie points from pedants for linguistic precision, but average folk are bound to think we are afflicted with Asperger syndrome.

While we should never consider adopting the terminology of the world, we DO need to be aware that, as with so many other words (“gay”, “love” and “marriage” spring to mind, just for starters), much of society is now using “honesty” to mean something else entirely. This may at times create a communication gap that requires conscious and deliberate bridging.

That does not mean that God has changed his mind about the nature of Christian character. Indulging in profanity would not make us more authentic. After all, our feelings about a subject do not have anything to do with the truth or falsehood of what we say about it (unless of course the subject is our emotions).

Good will, giving more than we take, and, above all, truthful speech content are still values that matter. Whatever the world may call them.

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