Language and Friends Witness

In our era of mass media, the world is not just "too much with us," as the poet William Wordsworth feared, but always with us. The media’s ability to set discourse is one of today’s most significant challenges facing Friends, who are in danger of being drowned out amid the cacophony.

The media present an attractive world of entertainment, consumerism, and commercial values; a world characterized by materialism but also by fashion, fantasy, and virtual reality. One might compare it to the floating world (ukiyo) of Japan’s urbanized, pleasure-loving Edo Period (1603-1827 C.E.). It is a seductive world, and in many ways antithetical to Friends.

Friends must constantly negotiate the process of staying afloat while still anchored to our beliefs and values. Luckily, Friends are generally good at using language, one of the means by which the mass media impose their worldview on us. But it still behooves us as Friends to hone our language skills.

Language is very significant, but of course it is secondary to our actions in the witness of our everyday lives—actions speak louder than words, as the saying goes. Our actions define us, note the existentialist philosophers. However, actions may be taken at random, in intervals, or only once in a lifetime—often in reaction to some event or other circumstance. Actions grow out of a context of beliefs, thought, and language use. Language is vital in that it enables us to define these beliefs, thought, and actions.

Actions, once taken, cannot be reversed, and they can only sometimes be corrected through another action (such as marriage and divorce). We have all made decisions that we later wished we hadn’t.

Language, on the other hand, is flexible. Along with imagination, it is the means by which we try out what we believe and rehearse how we should act. As any English teacher knows, we find out what we think by writing about it and discussing it with critical readers. We draft, revise, and hope we come up with something definitive.

Language, then, is essential to thinking and acting, as well as recording. Friends have traditionally recognized the importance of language through our emphasis on speaking in meeting, our writings, and our record-keeping. Because of this recognition and our concern for education, Friends have been able to influence the world in a manner disproportionate to our small numbers.

Friends have a language buffer that sets us apart from the wider world. This special vocabulary is briefly defined in such publications as Warren Sylvester Smith’s One Explorer’s Glossary of Quaker Terms (ed. Mae Smith Bixby, rev. Deborah Haines) and elaborated on in numerous pamphlets, articles, and books. It is a prized resource that helps provide solidarity to Friends surrounded by the floating world.

But since our special vocabulary requires a glossary (sometimes even among Friends), it is often not an efficient medium of communication with non-Friends, who may not understand—or may see the special vocabulary as quaint, peculiar, or even pretentious, on a par with the use of thee and thou. When non-Friends are curious about Friends beliefs and actions, Friends must be able to put their beliefs into everyday language that can be understood.

Whether among Friends or non-Friends, the first order of business for Quakers in today’s media world is to resist the toxic flood of triviality, misplaced emphasis, misinformation, oversimplification, propaganda, and outright lying. Corruption of language influences not only the lifestyles, but also politics in our country, most notably the continuous involvement of the United States in some kind of war since the beginning of World War II.

George Orwell was one of the first to call attention to the media-era corruption of language in his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language." He further demonstrated how politics corrupts language in his two famous novels, Animal Farm (1945), where democratic principles erode ("All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others"), and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), where language has morphed into state-sponsored new-speak.

Since Orwell’s day, political abuse of language has progressed around the world. Beyond mere language barriers, these political nuances and distortions of language pose difficult obstacles to world peace. In our own country, too, the undermining of language has reached an appalling stage and contributes to our social, economic, and political woes.

If the recent George W. Bush administration had not thrown around inflated rhetoric about 9/11, al-Qaida, and weapons of mass destruction, maybe the U.S. would not have rushed into the Iraq War. Without all the hype over "terrorism" and "homeland security," maybe we would not have seen the USA Patriot Act erode our civil rights, water down definitions of words like torture, and give new meanings to words like rendition.

In news broadcasts, talk shows, columns, letters to the editor, and everyday conversation, loaded words like socialism and fascism are hurled about with such heat that they have lost all meaning. A loving term like family values has been turned into a weapon against single parents, gays, and liberals; the "right to bear arms" might return us to the frontier or the Old West; and "senior security" is a prepaid burial.

Such misuse of language leads to trouble. And after the trouble comes, our country has a tendency to engage in some equally problematic hindsight corrections, like the current reexamination of "enhanced interrogation." We are constantly challenged to use critical thinking to detect muddled or deceptive language, and to do so in a timely manner. If we don’t, we are fated to be stuck with linguistic constructs rather than reality. Take, for instance, the current effort of the coal industry to convince us that it produces "clean coal." As someone who grew up in the Appalachian coalfields—who played in coal waste, and who saw his father return from work every day covered in coal dust and later succumb to black lung—I can assure you that coal is not clean. Nor do newer methods of mining it—like strip-mining and mountaintop removal, which reduce the coalfields to moonscapes—make it any cleaner.

Yet I am not sure how many people living comfortable, urbanized lives made possible by electricity from coal- fired plants are aware of (or care about) the destruction caused by coal mining in poor places like Appalachia and Native American reservations. Out of touch with the land, they accept a convenient version of reality hawked by the mass media.

Amid the sound and fury, Friends must continue to exercise critical thinking and be voices of reason. Traditionally, Friends have always questioned the status quo, taken oppositional stances, and spoken truth to power. It is important for Friends to continue to speak in public forums, write articles and letters to editors, contact politicians, utilize email and the Internet, maintain publishing programs, get voices in corporations, and support Friends organizations and other organizations compatible with Quakers. Among such organizations, Friends Committee on National Legislation provides an excellent model for political analysis, lobbying, and, in its Washington Newsletter, clear writing.

Through these efforts, Friends can influence, or at least clarify, the political discourse. For example, after a tragic explosion at a local sugar factory (attributed to dust accumulation), which injured many and caused deaths, one of our members of Congress rushed onto center stage calling for "swift action," projecting a hands-on, take-charge attitude consistent with a reputation for doing personal favors for constituents. In response, I wrote a letter to the editor of our daily newspaper detailing the representative’s record of support for the Bush administration’s gutting of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), which seriously decreased OSHA staffing and inspections of workplaces like the sugar factory. Since the newspaper is almost as conservative as the member of Congress, I was surprised that the letter got printed immediately. The representative beat a hasty retreat from the media spotlight, and for over a year the newspaper followed up on the tragedy, with criticism of some important figures.

Friends can also continue to educate the young in language use and critical thinking. A couple of standard books that I used to assign, and that have gone through several editions, are S. I. Hayakawa’s Language in Thought and Action (updated by Alan R. Hayakawa) and Monroe Beardsley’s Thinking Straight. A promising recent book is Jamie Whyte’s Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Priests, Journalists, and Other Serial Offenders.

Most of all, Friends must be clear about our own messages—for the example set, as well as for our own guidance. In using language, Friends should aim for the ideal of integrity expressed by Jesus, who taught that feelings, thoughts, words, and actions should be consistent and should form a moral continuum.

With no priests and few rituals or ceremonies, Friends must rely on language much more than other religious groups. The concepts of Quakerism as expressed in language are sometimes vague or metaphorical, and have grown out of historical contexts. Over time, these concepts can easily decay into catchwords and clichés, and so they must be subtly reinterpreted with new circumstances. Friends are challenged to reinvent our religion each time we think, speak, or write. That is why it is appropriate to continue to publish new pamphlets defining concepts like "Inward Light" and "leadings." For the same reason, Friends need refresher courses like those provided in pamphlets, at gatherings, and at Quaker study centers.

Not everyone can rise to these creative challenges of language use, but a greater concern for creativity might help. While Friends have been creative in the practical sciences and business, we have historically reflected a Puritan suspicion of the arts as being frivolous and licentious, dealing in falsehoods, and allied with evil. But Friends can learn by studying the lives of creative people such as artists, musicians, actors, and dancers. One easily accessible book is Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life.

As a former teacher of literature, I have often wished that Friends had a more distinguished record of accomplishment in fiction and poetry. A few names stand out, but too many Friends’ efforts in these endeavors are, at best, disappointingly mediocre—as if the authors thought skills in tract writing could carry over to fiction and poetry. Journal writing is another story, providing a tradition that Friends might build on. A fine example of a novel that uses the journal form is Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.

Simply reading fiction and poetry can be enlightening. Fiction encourages identification with and empathy for inspiring characters, enlarges our imaginations, and widens our sympathies for other people and ways. Poetry by nature pursues honest, heartfelt expression that might serve as a model for Friends. Reading fiction and poetry can encourage our own creative expression, too.

I also wish Friends would exhibit a sense of humor more often. I think that Friends are perceived in the everyday world as being humorless, and some Friends even seem to see humor as incompatible with weighty subject matter. Yet the most profound Friends I have known have had delightful senses of humor.

Humor does require some linguistic sophistication and judgment, since it is a strong tool, can be misunderstood, and should not be used for personal attacks. But humor can also be used nonviolently in self-defense. Used effectively, humor can lighten up awkward or tense situations by implicitly acknowledging that none of us is perfect. Laughing, after all, is good for our health. Humor is also a way of instructing without preaching. It can be used to expose muddled or deceptive thinking by pushing it to a ridiculous extreme.

When Friends witness via language in everyday life, we need to maintain the directness, simplicity, and purity of mind of the Houyhnhnms, the rational horse-like creatures in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, who thought it absurd to defeat the purpose of language by using it to lie or cheat. At the same time, Friends need to emulate Swift, a great language stylist, satirist, and esteemed cleric, in his skill, skepticism, and shrewdness.

Harold Branam

Harold Branam is a former Marshall Scholar, professor of English, and assistant editor of the International Encyclopedia of Communications (1989). He is a member of Savannah (Ga.) Meeting.