By Marilyn McEntyre. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2020. 212 pages. $21.99/hardcover or eBook.
Words matter. We know this experientially. Marilyn McEntyre shows us how.
She explores how words, euphemisms, allusions, and metaphors both limit and expand our ability to communicate with clarity. She reminds us that “words occupy ‘fields’ of meaning.” Each word has history and connections: “War on drugs” suggests a battlefield with opposing forces winning or losing. The actuality is more complex, and probably less aggressive. Is there a better phrase?
Words are general and specific. What is peace? What does peace look like? How do peaceful societies act? We are advised as peacemakers to mind our words and make conscious vocabulary choices.
“Euphemisms, at their best, are instruments of diplomacy. At their worst they are trapdoors that provide escape routes from responsibility and provide protection for hidden agendas.” McEntyre asks us to examine common euphemisms—“collateral damage,” “shock and awe,” “memory care,” “development projects,” “private parts”—and why they might have been needed. “Behind every euphemism lies a secret—a practice or fact that cannot bear direct public scrutiny.”
So, how do we speak peace? Consider the role of the reminder. Arguing is not very productive, but reminding folks of the values we hold in common opens the door to communication. Emily Dickinson’s advice to “tell it slant” means it’s important to understand your audience, and recognize your own biases. McEntyre encourages the use of poetic language, recognizing that allusions expand meaning. Of course, we must articulate our principles and facts, and check them, while minding our metaphors.
We found the metaphor chapter insightful. Take the common metaphor of “building.” Construction with its building code and craft leads to concrete language: laying a foundation, following plans, framing, joining, and nailing down. The images are of creating something solid and useful. But life is complicated, and there are situations where fluidity is vital, and the language of foundation and framework may unintentionally limit our options.
Wisely, McEntyre recognizes the natural complexities and the dangers of oversimplification. Many situations cannot be fully considered with pro and con arguments. She reminds us to laugh, quoting Anne Lamott: “Laughter is carbonated holiness.”
Speaking Peace is designed for group study. The afterword contains a set of queries for each of the 12 chapters; they are provocative and lead to thinking beyond this slim volume. We recommend it to facilitators of Alternatives to Violence Project, which began with the assumption that not all participants would be literate.
This book is for communicators with consciences. Those of us who write or speak to public audiences need to keep a self-scrutinizing eye open, not only speaking truth but being aware of the effects of our language on different audiences. The book’s final advice, delivered as the title of the last chapter, is “Quit Trying to ‘Win.’” If we can drop the competitiveness that win-lose thinking creates, we can invite alternate and synthesizing (rather than opposing) views and look for areas of deeper agreement.
Sandy and Tom Farley are members of Palo Alto (Calif.) Meeting. They are storytellers, writers, and, at times, recording clerks.