Once again Boris Johnson has hit the headlines. The upset he has caused this time is less about the topic he was addressing – the head covering worn by a small minority of women – but the language he used. Sadly the legitimacy of any argument he wanted to make has been lost in the debate about the language he chose to use.
This was a written article not an off the cuff remark so some have suggested that his choice of words was deliberate, designed to attract attention. Intended or not the language used has resulted in attracting attention more than enabling a debate, generating more heat than light.
A man being rather forceful in his views on what women should or should not wear, and in turn being defended in his attitudes by other men, was never going to be a dignified moment of political debate. Written in the name of defending liberal values, the illiberal phrases used, however jokily intended, have sadly led to responses that did little to espouse liberal values.
When writing an article and especially in a post on social media, there is always the temptation to craft a clever phrase or use a challenging image to attract attention. Amidst the sea of tweets, posts and blogs there is longing to be noticed, to be liked, retweeted or shared – that after all is the measure of success. Newspapers love the ill-chosen phrase as it makes good headlines and radio and television love setting up debates between extremes in the alleged name of good viewing/listening.
Sadly too much of modern political debate is reduced to the sound bite, with a well-chosen (and/or provocative) image or phrase to make it memorable The result is political debate that is often coarse and lacking in dignity. Insult and put-down seem more important than advancing an argument and bringing about chance. Volume is regarded as mattering more than insight. The result seems to be growing division and bitterness.
The language we use matters. It can either build bridges or create barriers. Language can either encourage honest debate or increase a bunker mentality. Jesus urges us to keep our language simple: All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:37). This is echoed in the Letter of James (5:12) Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear–not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned. And as St Paul puts it in his Letter to the Ephesians (4:26) Be angry but do not sin.
Our nation feels sadly an increasingly divided land. We have forgotten how to speak to one another in gentleness and compassion. Rightly used language can help us reach out to one another. At it best it can invite open and honest debate where all sides seek resolution, a sense of being able to move forward together.
In difficult times, it would be good if the Church could be known for offering a quieter, more reflective voice, one that is quick to understand and slow to judge, one that sees success not in terms of attention gained but love shared.
As Elijah (1Kings 19:12) discovered after the wind, the earthquake and the fire comes the still small voice. This is the voice that needs our fullest attention with its searching question: what are you doing here? It is rarely the loudest voice that needs the most attention and always the language we use will matter.