Thursday, June 25, 2009

Repost: Discretion and Discussion

A time to be silent and a time to speak…

                        Ecclesiastes 3.7 

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, 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, even people we’ll never know—celebrities and acquaintances twice removed and random strangers whose loud talk tempts us to repeat what we overhear. We buy tabloids and surf Websites to find more to talk about. We Twitter, Tweet, text, IM, blog, post, link, leak, email, answer, forward, comment, respond, cut-and-paste, collate, Skype, vidcam, Google, TiVo, Youtube, download, upload,  or lumped together, we "share." If somebody's said  or done it and we don't know it, it's not because we can't or won't or shouldn't hear about it eventually. It's on the loose to fall into our hands. If we're not telling everything we know, adding our two cents, or formulating alternative theories, it's not for lack of an audience, because somewhere there's someone eager to hear any and everything we want to say about anybody. In today’s chatterbox culture, anyone is fair game and loose talk only offends if we’re its subject. That alone should teach us to mind our words. But for reasons I'll never get, we never connect talking about others with being talked about. Wags coin proverbs about talking too much because too much talk is—literally—a proverbial problem.

Listeners First

According to Solomon, there are times for discretion and times for discussion. Not only what we say, but when it's said often tells more about us than those we tell on. 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 when to keep silent and when to speak.

Spiritual Correctness

Political correctness does a grave disservice by shifting attention from things we say to how we say them. But swapping older, belittling epithets for newer, “appropriate” ones won’t change what we 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 children to refer to retarded people as “special” or “challenged” only allays our guilt for abusing the old term 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, 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 say the right thing at the right times and nothing wrong at the wrong time.

This fresh take on a stale proverb gets much closer to Solomon’s wisdom.

(Tomorrow: Loving and Loathing)

No comments: