A Proverbial Problem
Why all the proverbs about keeping thoughts to ourselves? They're so well known, a parlor game could be built around them. Two teams, two pads, and 30 seconds—go! “Loose lips sink ships.” “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” “Discretion is the better part of valor.” “Don’t spill the beans.” “Think before you speak.” “Still waters run deep.” “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.” “Don’t talk out of school.” And a personal favorite, “Take something to your grave!”
With all these mottos on the loose, one might expect far less loose talk. But, oh my, how we love to talk! We tell on us, each other, friends and neighbors, and even people we’ll never know—celebrities and acquaintances twice removed and random strangers whose compulsive talk invites us to repeat what we overhear. We buy magazines and surf Websites for more to talk about. We watch mean-spirited TV attorneys speculate wildly about alleged criminals and victims. In today’s chatterbox culture, anyone is fair game and loose talk is only offensive if we’re the subjects. That alone should teach us to mind what we say. But we don’t quite connect being talked about and talking about others. Wags coin proverbs about talking too much because too much talk is—literally—a proverbial problem.
According to Solomon, there are times for discretion and times for discussion. As much as what we say, when we say it reveals more about us than those we talk about. Our comments float into the ether, leaving impressions behind: Mary’s a gossip. Martin’s a braggart. Meg’s a critic. Ryan exaggerates. Though we preface observations with disclaimers, if our audience is too inexperienced or impressionable to acknowledge our sincerity, it’s the wrong time to speak. In Romans 14.15 and 16, Paul explains why ignoring perceptions harms others and us: “If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died. Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil.” Being strong enough to speak honestly doesn’t override considering our audience. “The ear tests words as the tongue tastes meat,” Job 34.3 says. The ears our words fall on decide the right and wrong in what we say. Putting listeners first disables the compulsion to show off how smart we are and how much we know. It informs us whether it’s time to keep silent or time to speak.
Political correctness does us a grave disservice by shifting attention from things we say to how we say them. But swapping older, belittling epithets for newer, “appropriate” ones doesn’t change what they mean. It just ties a fresher ribbon around the same scorn and hatred the old phrases expressed. For instance, a person with an IQ below 70 is clinically retarded. As we know, the classification seeped into usage decades ago as a general insult having nothing to do with mental ability. Teaching our children to refer to retarded people as “special” or “challenged” only allays our guilt for abusing the terminology when we were young. Before today ends, hundreds of kids will use “special” and “challenged” disparagingly, meaning exactly what we meant by “retarded.” Nothing’s changed. It’s not a matter of “inappropriate,” but unacceptable. Until political correctness takes that on, it’s no more correct than what it pretends to replace.
Spiritual correctness, on the other hand, focuses exclusively on what’s acceptable by measuring what we say, how we say it, and when it’s said by God’s standards. This is why David prays, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD.” (Psalm 19.14) It’s why Jesus chastises Pharisees who malign Him, saying, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12.34) It’s why Paul advises Timothy to “set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity.” (1 Timothy 4.12) Spiritual correctness fixes our thoughts first, so what, how, and when we speak is acceptable to God. And if He’s pleased, we can be confident we’re saying the right things when it’s time to speak and keeping our thoughts to ourselves when it’s time to be silent.
Attempting to scripturally justify this would stretch credulity past all limits. Nonetheless, I can't resist. Dianne Wiest and John Cusack in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway: "Don't Speak!"
(Tomorrow: One in Ten)