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Johnson shows how explosive language can be

TOM CASEY SJ :: This article appeared first in the Rite & Reason column in the Irish Times » on Tuesday 1 October 2019.

Anyone who witnessed the extraordinary scenes in the House of Commons last Wednesday, was probably left more than a little aghast. Witnessing such a spectacle reminds us how explosive language can be.

And that can be as true for the language we choose when we speak to others, as it was for the language Boris Johnson used to address the House of Commons last week.

We too need to become aware of how our daily language is itself part of the problem. We use many loaded words without a second thought, words that shape our views and actions in a negative way.

Let’s take a simple but revealing example: the way we view arguments. Without even realising it, we envisage arguments in an aggressive fashion.

Just think for a moment of some of the words we use in relation to arguments: we “attack” and “defend” arguments, we “shoot down” what someone else says, we “bulldoze” any objection in our way, we “target” the weak points of others, and refuse to “surrender” our position. These verbs evoke weapons, violence and war.

Admittedly there are understandable reasons for this use of aggressive imagery: sometimes it’s because we find it hard to separate ourselves from our arguments and we think that if someone challenges our views, they’re also questioning our integrity.

Antagonistic exchanges

Sometimes we’re not even trying to reach agreement: we may not even know the other party, as on social media. But because we’re largely unaware of the violent undertones in these words, we also do not realise how they can predispose us to enter arguments in order to have a row.

And so, without consciously willing it, we find that our arguments quickly balloon into battles. Arguments are not inherently warlike; but because of the hostile words we use to describe them, we effectively make them into antagonistic exchanges.

Aggressive words are also liable to affect our actions: insert the words “argument led to murder” into your Google search engine, and in less than a second, you’ll have tens of millions of results. Or consider the phenomenon of road rage: many people don’t become proficient at swearing until they start driving.

Imagine we could move away from conducting arguments in such an aggressive way, and instead view them as collaborative journeys toward the truth.

How could we view arguments as journeys? Well, in an argument, there is often the notion of a starting point, a road to follow and a destination. We set out to prove something, the argument can go through various stages or steps, leading to a particular conclusion.

Attack and defend

Of course we can also veer off in the wrong direction, lose the thread of an argument or talk in circles. The great thing about characterising an argument as a journey is that it predisposes us to think of the progress we are making and whether we’re approaching our goal.

Moreover, if we build on this foundation by additionally seeing an argument as a collaborative journey toward truth, we won’t be inclined to see the argument as something to win or to lose, and we won’t feel impelled to attack or to defend.

It will be about teamwork, and about the truth winning out, not either of the arguers. We’ll want to work together to find a solution.

We urgently need to call to account political leaders who use inflammatory language. But we also need to be vigilant about our own words. Our words shape our sense of ourselves and play a huge role in the way we see reality.

They’re like filters that allow in certain images of what is normal while excluding others. They’re like the air we breathe, which is partly healthy and partly polluted, so that while it helps us breathe (we need words to communicate), it can also suffocate us.

The first step in defusing our vocabulary is to become aware that our words can inflict damage, that they’re not neutral. Thankfully many of our day-to-day words are not hateful, but they can still have a subtly destructive impact.

To become free to speak helpful words, we must first free ourselves from the tyranny of unhelpful words. And then follows the longer struggle of learning to speak anew, as though for the first time.

Rev Dr Thomas Casey SJ is dean of philosophy in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth