Letting Words Do Their Work

Why the care of language is more important than ever.
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"Speak the truth to one another;render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace."
Zechariah 8:16, ESV

This solid piece of advice from the Old Testament prophet seems like an ethical commonplace. "Tell the truth" is one of the first moral principles we learn as children. Be fair. Resolve conflicts in honest conversation. Every adult who participated in our upbringing probably gave us some version of these teachings.

But following them can be difficult and complicated in new ways for this generation of Americans, Christians, speakers of English—the language that dominates global discourse—and consumers of mass media. That difficulty makes it urgent that we learn new strategies of truth-telling in the interests of waging peace and delivering the good news that is bigger than the bad news—indeed, in the interests of survival.

It is hard to tell the truth these days, because the varieties of untruth are so many, so pervasive, and so well disguised. Lies are hard to identify when they come in the form of apparently innocuous imprecisions, socially acceptable slippages, hyperboles posing as enthusiasm, or well-placed propaganda.

How often I've heard that this spring's new colors are wardrobe "essentials"; that a particular school is noteworthy for its dedication to undefined "excellence"; that the youth group's summer trip was "awesome." Or, more consequentially, exploitive industry practices described as "cost-effective," though the term fails to count the costs in human health and dignity; or the violent deaths of innocent civilians described as "collateral damage."

These forms of falsehood are so common, and even so normal, in a media-saturated culture, that truth often looks pale, understated, ...

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