Mark Williams, Ph.D.
Professor of Rhetoric, California State University, Sacramento
(from the regular Column: “Meaningful-Faith: Words, the Word, and a Life of Substance”)
I realize it is obvious, but we increasingly find ourselves in difficult days (like fish dropped into molasses) where the most obvious things (if we stay here, we will die) need to be quietly if unambiguously brought to the attention of others for the sake of discussion.
So, to state the obvious: it is possible to really disagree only when we really agree that there is something real to disagree about. Really.
You and I cannot have a meaningful disagreement about whether or not grophs are dangerous if groph is simply a word for a fictional creature we are making up. We can certainly argue about whether we want our made-up grophs to be dangerous or kind, but arguing about what I want is very different from arguing about what something is.
In short, if you are just making a creature up, you can’t get it wrong. And therefore, you can’t really disagree with someone else who is making up their own version of that creature, since they can’t get it wrong either. Describe your groph as a dangerous flesh-eating vampire-zombie-dragon. Meanwhile, someone else describes their groph as a lovey-dovey cuddle kitten who prepares flawless Japanese cuisine whenever asked. Since there is not really a something there, independent of our imaginations, we cannot argue about what that something really is.
But none of this is true of anacondas. Anacondas don’t care whether I describe them as cuddly or dangerous because anacondas exist entirely apart from my words about them. They are actually there, and when we start talking about something that is real, that changes what our words are doing. Now, our descriptions can be accurate or inaccurate. They can be more true or they can be less true. We might now have a real disagreement, because there is something real to disagree about.
What is true of grophs and anacondas is truer of Good and Justice. When we describe donating blood as a good act, we might mean that the word good describes a fixed quality (Goodness itself, as it is known to God), and this act of donating blood imitates that quality in some partial but recognizable way. Describing the action as good is accurate, because Goodness is a real thing, and what you are doing really does reflect its real core. But the accuracy or inaccuracy of my description hinges on the word good being like the word anaconda.
On the other hand, if the word good is like the word groph, then when I say something is good, I only mean that I like it. And of course, if the word good is like the word groph, it follows that when I describe something as good, I can never be wrong. Even if I apply the word good to apartheid. Or to lynching—which is rather a problem. I hope you agree.
If lynching is called good by my group, then my group is wrong. But our description can only be wrong if the word good re-presents some quality that is real and therefore unaffected by our words. If good is only a word that my group and I can choose to define according to our own wishes, then our definition can never be wrong. And neither can yours. Thus, when I say lynching is good and you say it is bad, the only possible resolution to this difference is to see who has more raw power, so that one side can enforce its wishes on the other.
Severed from reality, words cannot mean anything real. They cannot mean at all. Words become nothing more than a way to try and manipulate other’s feelings so that my group wins. Words become power tools to carve what I want out of the raw material of your psyche.
Indeed: severed from something Real, words inevitably become tools of power. They are used to signal identity (see! I am one of you!) and to empower our group while attacking and weakening those outside our group.
Christians must never allow themselves to fall into such a trap, especially with something as precious as words. For, in the end, our words are either a reflection of something Real or they are charades, a lie. Words are descriptions of what is really outside of us and over us, or they are empty revelry in our private wishes, where they become nothing more than a tool of domination and power.
Words busying themselves with the task of domination have nothing to do with the Word himself.