Language Matters — We Shouldn’t Wait Until the Bullets Fly to Know That

Today’s shooting involving Republican members of Congress and some of their aides and friends at a small baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia, is a terrible, detestable action.  All shootings are, and it was refreshing to see people from different places on the political spectrum come together at a human level to console and comfort each other and their families, and to rightfully condemn something for which there is never a legitimate excuse.  I suspect it will not be long before today’s incident will become a political football tossed back and forth in our country’s endless debate about guns.  But perhaps today’s incident, because it appears to be tied to politics, might give us a space to reflect for just a moment on something that probably contributed to what happened today.

For many years, now, we have lived in a climate of increasingly polarized politics.  Politicians and others of all political stripes have increasingly demonized those with whom they do not agree.  People have called their opponents names, they have suggested that their opponents are morally bankrupt, and some have even suggested that their opponents are not really human.    And, there have been suggestions by some — at time veiled, at times quite open — that the world would be better off if their opponents were dead.   And it appears that today, someone took that suggestion seriously.

Human beings are profoundly linguistic creatures.   Language fundamentally shapes and orders our reality.  And when the language of politics and public discourse becomes characterized by hatred and violence, then that discourse helps to shape a reality in which hatred and violence are seen as somehow acceptable.  That old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me,” is wrong on a number of levels.  Violent, hateful names and words do hurt — and when we hear them so often that they begin to shape our reality, those words can be translated into actions.

Human beings have always had disagreements, and always will.  The American political landscape will always include disagreement and debate.  But it is one thing to disagree with someone, and another thing to cease to value them as human beings.  We live today in a culture that has been shaped too much by language that undermines the humanity of those with whom we disagree, and when we are able to stop seeing someone’s humanity, we can more easily decide to do them harm.

There have certainly been much worse shooting incidents in this country than the one we saw today.  But perhaps the fact that this particular incident was directed against members of Congress will cause our political establishment to take notice, and to realize that today’s incident is a symptom — a symptom of a culture of political discourse that gives permission to hate, to demonize, and, ultimately, to do violence.  Politicians bear a lot of responsibility in changing that political discourse.  But all of us, as citizens, share that responsibility, as well.

Ultimately, the heart of Christianity — and all religious traditions — is to bring about a transformation of the human person.  Whatever one’s religion or non-religion, the great spiritual task of every human being is to face the darker parts of ourselves and to bring them into the light.   When we become trapped in hateful, demonizing language, we not only impact the culture around us, but we also impact our own spiritual condition.  Often, we like to begin by trying to change others — something that we cannot easily do, if at all.  But we can change ourselves, we can recognize the negativity in us that spills out of us, and we can work on transforming that into something that shapes ourselves and the culture around us in positive ways.  The need to take that spiritual work seriously has never been more evident.

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