Observers of the current presidential campaign--and that includes just about all of us--have been dismayed at the tone of the discourse coming from the mouths of those who want to speak on behalf of the highest political ideals and aspirations of the American people. Personal insults, name-calling and slurs of negativity have characterized the public speech of several candidates, and after watching a recent Republican debate focus groups reported that the candidates' performance was disgusting or simply "embarrassing."
Nasty language has been a part of campaigns from our earliest elections. In 1800, supporters of President John Adams called his election opponent, Vice President Thomas Jefferson, "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow." Jefferson, whose followers said Adams was a tyrant and a hypocrite, hired a hatchet man to spread falsehoods about Adams, including the trumped up but effective claim that Adams wanted to declare war on France, which may have cost the president reelection. In our time, negativity in political campaigns is pushed by ad agencies and partisan talking heads on interview commentary programs. What may be new in the current campaign is that candidates themselves are speaking out with unbridled invective, excessive personal derision and lack of control over their language regarding their opponents.
Religion pays serious attention to the power of speech as a significant danger area in human life, rivaled only by money and sexuality. The worries expressed in the various instructions for good behavior extend importantly to language, to the words we use, to what we say and how we say things.
How people use language to communicate ideas, to make a case, to describe a situation, and to present ideas for consideration reveals much about intellectual grounding and character. Resorting to slurs or coarse language undermines a longstanding principle of decency, namely, that we treat people with whom we disagree with respect.
Words are powerful. They can tear down and destroy. One of the Ten Precepts of Buddhism is "right speech" that does not harm or abuse people, that lacks rancor and ill-will and neither proves divisive nor spews idle chatter. The writer of James in the New Testament says the "tongue" can be "full of deadly poison," and the Hebrew Bible is filled with admonitions. It warns against bearing false witness and destroying a person's reputation through lying. It condemns using speech to flatter since this exposes an "inward wickedness" (Psalm 5.9), and for those who use language to curse rather than bless, the Psalmist writes ". . . let curses come on him!" (Psalm 109.17). The wisdom literature censures those who gossip and speak behind people's backs--backbiters--because they show themselves to be cowardly and sowers of discord (Proverbs 6.19). Destructive speech can be found in those whose words insult, and for those who talk too much, the writer of Ecclesiastes advises: a "fools voice [comes] with many words. . . therefore let your words be few" (5. 3,2). Religious authorities around the world acknowledge that language and speech open a danger area, and much harm can come from the choices people make using and misusing words.
Despite such destructive potential, words can also be precious, a source of enormous creative power. All it took for the big bang to start, according to Genesis, was for God to speak. So God uttered the words "Let there be light" and lit up the universe. Words, like music, can soothe the savage breast. Words can enchant through poetry and touch the secrets of the human heart; and words can direct the mind to higher things even when they cannot do so directly.
The writers of Scriptures knew what poets know--that words can find ways to meaning through revelation and metaphor. Sometimes 'what is' must be said indirectly because directly cannot get us there. In the Western religious traditions, ultimate reality--God--cannot be known except by the indirection of revelation. In Judaism that revelation comes through the Torah, a book of many words; in Christianity it comes through "the Word" becoming human; and in Islam God's revelation comes through the Qur'an, a book of such eloquence that some of the first Muslims to hear it were so astonished that they knew its source had to be divine.
Words hold the power to reveal truths higher than what we see or hear in our everyday existence. Words--language--can create in us new hearts; they can inspire us to imagine and connect ideas and emotions and greater unities so that we might come to an understanding of the love that is the basis of human longing and fulfillment in life. Words are little tools we work with all day long to build, to forge bridges of understanding across the gaps of misunderstanding that can so easily separate us from one another. Words are so important that religious people believe even Ultimate Reality has recourse to them, which elevates them to even greater heights of meaning and creative possibility. What we find through words is meaning and finally, beyond that, even beauty itself.
The harsh and demeaning language coming over the airways today reminds us that political discourse can fail to make room for imagination and sensitivity to higher things. Where there is no beauty in the language the people perish. Yet political speech, like religious language, can find its way to a poetry that enlarges the heart and opens the mind while making us aware that the words we utter cannot possibly contain the full reality of that to which they point. When words are abused and serve destructive ends they point us away from connections, from understanding, from imagination and even from love. On the other hand, those who attend to the power of language can achieve an eloquence that connects words to realities beyond what is seen--to such intangibles as love and understanding. Such eloquence requires attentiveness to the high art of creative wording; and it requires as well a corresponding refusal to abuse language and demean people through words that express ill-will or just plain meanness.
We have aspiring leaders today who are claiming a deep grounding in faith but then do not seem able to express themselves with the eloquence that faith itself can inspire. Perhaps candidates who aspire to lead us should consider that we need an eloquence that corresponds to our better natures and sets our minds on higher things. Such language requires attentiveness, diligence and hard work. Lincoln's Gettysburg address aspired to move toward higher things--unity in the midst of national division--and the words he found were equal to his aspiration. They were not scribbled last minute on the back on an envelope but were the product of intense labor and revisions that continued even after the speech was delivered. The hard work finally achieved beauty to match resolve, and the beauty of that language is still with us and still experienced from a ten sentence, two-minute speech that claimed high purpose and recreated a nation.
Do our candidates for high office actually hold aspirations for the people they wish to serve? If they did would they not present those aspirations in a language so eloquent that the aspirations themselves came to reflect beauty and high-mindedness? We have had leaders able to do that, and we remember them. We need from our candidates today a thoughtfulness that finally expresses itself in words that can arrest us with their eloquence, that can connect us to a vision that is finally poetic even if couched in terms of policy and practicalities. Should we find leaders capable of moving toward greater thoughtfulness, care for language and the attainment of eloquence, we might find ourselves hearing a more civil discourse and not turning from speech that is causing disgust and embarrassment. Citizens, just regular citizens, deserve to be treated with the respect of speech ennobled by a call to clarity, high purpose, helpfulness and even beauty.
Portions of this blog were published in The Morning Call.