Saturday, July 14, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (15)

There’s an old Monty Python sketch called “Nudge Nudge”, in which Terry Jones plays a man just trying to have a quiet drink while the stranger seated beside him pesters him non-stop. The chatterbox pours out a stream of apparently innocent questions loaded with subtext that might be overlooked if it were not for his knowing leer and constant barrage of lines like “Know whatahmean, know whatahmean, nudge nudge, know whatahmean, say no more?”

Eventually even the monumentally oblivious Jones has to ask, “Look ... are you insinuating something?”

I can’t read the next few verses of Proverbs without picturing that scene. One big takeaway from it for me is that it’s possible to make people think terrible things (in this case, the audience) without really saying very much at all.

7. Wisdom Applied: Innuendo (Proverbs 6:12-19)

The Accusation That Isn’t

I’m going to treat these eight verses as a single, related section rather than two separate ones, for reasons I’ll come to shortly. Here are the first four:
“A worthless person, a wicked man, goes about with crooked speech, winks with his eyes, signals with his feet, points with his finger, with perverted heart devises evil, continually sowing discord; therefore calamity will come upon him suddenly; in a moment he will be broken beyond healing.”
Innuendo is a sub-category of gossip that might be the very worst variety. Most late night talk show hosts from the last thirty years are highly skilled at it. Bill Maher, David Letterman, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are all masters of innuendo. I don’t mean merely that they mock people mercilessly and can summon up withering sarcasm at a drop of a hat. They’re comedians; of course they can do that. What I mean is that all have a way of cocking an eyebrow, drumming a pencil on the desktop, glancing off into the middle distance in feigned innocence or surprise, taking a timely sip of coffee, whistling a tune to signal disbelief or otherwise using body language to suggest there is MUCH more to whatever they have just insinuated than they can possibly say. This is precisely what the master of innuendo does. Solomon’s description is right on the nose.

Gossip and Innuendo

Now of course Solomon’s “worthless person” is far worse than any talk show host because he’s out there doing real-world damage, not just mugging for the cameras and collecting millions.

The difference between gossip and the sort of innuendo Solomon describes is this: gossip generally has to do with actions, while malicious innuendo often tries to provoke suspicion about motives, usually without evidence. Gossip accuses, innuendo strongly implies. Gossip comes from all kinds of motives, most commonly a desperate craving to be the center of attention, while practitioners of malicious innuendo are ... exactly what it sounds like, bent on alienating one person from another. Finally, gossip tends to be specific, while innuendo is never quite spelled out.

You might think the greater level of detail would make gossip worse, but in fact it’s far better for the victim. Any specific false charge can be refuted or at very least vigorously disputed: “What on earth are you talking about? I was home with my wife, not out clubbing!” But how do you dispute something like “See the way he’s looking at her …” when it’s accompanied by nothing more on point than a knowing eye roll? The implication can be completely false, but the gossip’s convincing imitation of spiritual alertness and his apparent cleverness at sussing out the “hidden evil” in the room leaves the hearer convinced there must be something awful going on to which he is completely oblivious. Best of all, by declining to restrict his speculations to facts and evidence, the innuendo specialist can never be proven completely wrong. And because one never wants to be the bonehead who’s missed the obvious, it’s easy to imagine reams of circumstantial evidence for the implicit accusation once it has been not-quite-made.

Hard to Undo

That sort of damage is awfully hard to undo. The person who hears it is unable to confront the alleged offender because he has nothing tangible of which to accuse him, yet he goes away nursing suspicions that cannot be dispelled. Discord has been successfully sown; the sort of disharmony that can undermine relationships for years.

Masters of innuendo use words too, not just gestures. They go about “with crooked speech”. They love to insinuate motives like “abusive”, “racist”, “homophobic”, “sexist”, “unChristlike” or “mean” — adjectives that are ill-defined and easily misunderstood — without any hard evidence those attitudes are actually present. Innuendo-masters like to talk about “tones” and “vibes” rather than the truth or falsehood of arguments. But the advantage of leaving one’s divisive speech nebulous is that it cannot easily come back to haunt the person who started it.

All the same, sin has a way of finding out people who engage in it regularly and unrepentantly.

Broken Beyond Healing

The danger of stabbing others in the back with innuendo is that making yourself appear morally superior is highly addictive, and anyone remotely perceptive who is around long enough is likely to notice a pattern of behavior and begin to question the validity of what’s being implied. Once trust in the source of the “inside information” is lost, it is impossible to restore without a full, humiliating public confession from the gossip. And since there is no guarantee that all the people he has injured will extend forgiveness, the possibility that “calamity will come upon him suddenly; in a moment he will be broken beyond healing” is real indeed.

So, yes, spreading innuendo is not just innocent speculation or reasonable doubt about someone’s character. It’s a foul, unchristian trick, and it’s been around as long as mankind.

At Sixes and Sevens

How bad is it? Well, consider our next four verses:
“There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.”
This business of listing a number of things and then adding another seems to be an ancient Eastern way of driving a point home. The last point is usually the strongest. Eliphaz uses a similar construction in the book of Job when he declares, “He will deliver you from six troubles; in seven no evil shall touch you.” Agur does the same sort of thing five times in Proverbs 30 with threes and fours. Some scholars refer to these formulations as “graded numerical sayings”. In Pathos und Humor in der israelitischen Erziehung, Johannel Hempel argued that the technique was a teaching device for imparting knowledge to poor or unwilling students.

Something So Strong

Thus, while some might be inclined to view this as a separate section of the chapter, I suspect it’s closely related to the previous four verses, which end by describing the master of innuendo as “continually sowing discord”. Here the final (and arguably most important) item on the list of “things that the Lord hates” is “one who sows discord among brothers”. When you consider some of the other items on the list (“hands that shed innocent blood”), it seems as if Solomon is saying something very strong indeed about innuendo and malicious division.

Worth a thought, both for those disposed to engage in it and those inclined to listen to them, because innuendo, like gossip, is calculated to make the listener complicit in the act of defamation. The way out is to directly challenge the insinuation right at the outset. “What do you mean by that exactly?”, “Do you have any evidence for that?” and especially “Let’s go talk to him about it then” are all good ways to get the innuendo-master backpedaling madly, making every effort to ensure you know that whatever you think he meant by it was not really what he intended.

The one good thing about innuendo is that it cannot thrive where it is not tolerated.

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