Bridling the Tongue

Mark Ross has an article entitled “Guarding Our Speech” in the October issue of Tabletalk magazine. The article is not limited to discussing political speech, but Ross does use that as an example at the beginning of the article, and it is quite timely for this particular time of this particular year. After all, one week from today the voters of the United States will be deciding whether Barack Obama will serve another four years as president, or whether he will be replaced in January by Mitt Romney. The vote next week will be the conclusion of months and months of campaigning, advertising and debating. According to a recent article, this year’s presidential campaign is going to cost more than $2 billion all told. That’s a lot of speech!

Of course, that is only the paid speech that comes from the campaigns and the various groups that seek to influence the outcome of the election through paid communications. In other words, is does not take into consideration at all the millions of hours of conversation pro and con around cafe tables, kitchen tables and water coolers. And while the content of the paid advertising is relevant, it is this informal conversation that is what I want to address.

Ross writes, “Discussions of politics are especially notorious. Few people hesitate to represent candidates of the opposing party in the worst possible light. Did you know that all Democrats are left-wing liberals bent on turning the whole U.S. economy into a socialist state? Did you know that all Republicans are extreme right-wing conservatives who have no compassion for the poor or any sense of social responsibility? These and other ‘truths’ like them are purportedly discerned simply from a person’s party affiliation. It is not necessary to meet any of these people or speak with them about their views at any length.”

His analysis is sad but true. Far too many of us jump to quick conclusions about politicians based solely on their party, and then we shape our opinions–which shape our speech–around these assumptions.

Even worse, perhaps, is the vitriolic rhetoric that “we the people” tend to throw at elected officials and political candidates. There is nothing wrong with being politically involved (I encourage it, in fact) or with trying to influence the opinions of others, but there is something wrong with hurling insults, half-truths and even outright lies at those with whom we disagree.

Far too often this happens most easily in forums like this one–a blog–or on social networking sites, like Facebook or Twitter. We see or hear something and want to reply, and, let’s face it, we get a kick out of stoking the fires of the debate, so we will post something that is over the top. Maybe we do it specifically to get a reaction, maybe we really believe it; regardless, it’s wrong. The Scripture has plenty to say about bridling our tongues and carefully choosing our words. I believe those passages apply equally to our blog posts, status updates and tweets.

Jesus made it clear that the sixth commandment’s prohibition against murder is violated not only by actually taking a life, but by angry and insulting words. Numerous passages of Scripture refer to the one who is careless in speech as a fool.

Should we engage in political debate? Yes. Should we avoid critiquing or criticizing those with whom we disagree? Not necessarily. But we need to stick to the issues, not attack the people, and we need to, to the fullest extent possible, adhere to the facts. Scripture is equally clear, by the way, that those in positions of authority are there because God has placed them there or allowed them to be there, and as such they are His representatives–and their positions are worthy of our respect.