When Language Becomes Worthless

I’ve observed in the last few years a shift in our communication.  Now, I’m not so sure it’s only been in the last few years (others would probably tell me it’s been longer) but I have certainly noticed it as it has invaded my circles.

Worthless language takes many forms.  I have observed that people say things that don’t actually say much at all.  In other words, if I have to ask you what you mean several times – over one statement – it is likely that what you said either was profoundly unclear or unintelligible. Now, of course the third option could be that I’m clueless (that’s always an option).  Let’s assume that I’m not.  (We have to assume something…)

Worthless language can be crude and curse-filled.  In that case, that language, while descriptive, is usually not helpful in advancing dialogue.

What I’m talking about in terms of useless language is user-defined language.  In other words, using words whose meaning is ultimately subjective or user-defined: it means what I say it means.

This language, as far as I’ve observed, is most prevalent when words that were previously used to describe physical ailments, and were at one time metaphorically used to describe our inner existence, crossed over into literal, inner descriptors.


Here’s a popular one: “I’m hurt.”  What the speaker means is not something physical and measurable (like the yellow jacket stings I received yesterday) but some kind of inner experience that only the speaker knows about.

“I’m wounded”

“You’re unsafe”

“This relationship is unhealthy”

“That’s abuse”

“You hurt my feelings”

Each of these phrases depicts an inner, subjective experience that defies external definition.  In other words, there’s no real way to test, measure, or gage what the speaker really means.  And we all like it that way.

A problem with user-defined language is that once it is spoken, its meaning is both a secret and controlled by the user.  I have to figure out what you mean and if I don’t I can’t ever do anything to please you.  Maybe vindictive speakers like it that way; most probably don’t realize what’s happening.  But for the hearer, it is a kind of verbal servitude – you own me because you’ve used words that I’ve heard before but whose meaning you’ve defined.

I’m both stuck and beholden.

It didn’t use to be this way.  Formerly, language, while usable in different arenas had specific functions.  Now, those meanings have all been conflated – combined, condensed, melted-together.  And we’re all stuck.  If I’m hurt or you’re unhealthy, we’re slaves to each other until we figure out what the blazes that all means.

I have a better idea.  How about we don’t give a “tinker’s rip” about each others language and we agree instead on a common tongue.  When we talk about our inner experiences – what we think and value and believe – why don’t we adopt a time tested vocabulary and start from there?

The Bible.  The Bible provides for us both descriptive and prescriptive words.  It both describes and explains our inner experiences.  If, for example,  I experience a hardship at your hands, I can tell you that:

“I believe that your words were full of wrath and that you sinned against me” (see Colossians 3:8).

“You were slandering me to my friend and you sinned against me” (see same verse)

“You lied with your words and you sinned against me” (see Colossians 3:9)

“Your speech was obscene and it was offensive; you sinned against me” (see Colossians 3:8)

“Your words were harsh and unloving; you didn’t have my best interests in mind” (see Ephesians 4:15 and Philippians 2:4)

You see, when we use an external, neutral language that both describes and prescribes, things can happen. I can be held accountable and you can get some justice and mercy.  Do we not see that our culture’s current use of formerly physical language is ultimately unhelpful?  Throwing around terms like “abuse” and “safe” and “health” just don’t get us anywhere with each other.  (We’ve seen this for years in the ambiguity of pro-abortion argumentation standing on phrases like the “health of the mother” and then filling into “health” whatever ones wants.)

If you tell me that I’m not “safe” I have no idea what to do except what you tell me.  But, what if what you are telling me to do to be “safe” is contrary to the law of God?  In other words, what if you tell me that I must “stay away so that you can be safe” when in fact the Bible says that I must draw near to reconcile?  What do we do then?

When it comes to the language of blessing and the language of conflict, we cannot let ourselves devolve into subjective, user-defined, worthless speech.  Instead, we must humble ourselves and use the language of Another.  Then we will be able to assign a universal meaning and maybe we can reconcile.

Among the All-Time Dumbest Things Ever

A friend of mine will often send me links to articles of mutual interest.  Recently, she sent me one written by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times.  The line that stopped me cold was the following: “It has become crystal clear to me that we can’t make progress against global poverty unless we do more to reduce fertility.”

I am amazed that before dealing with a real and more dangerous threat to poverty, dictatorial governments, we’re going to go after people with large families.  Because some standard of living isn’t being met, we resort to the easiest and more cowardly of solutions.  Are you kidding me?  Reducing fertility as the road to poverty reduction?  How about dealing with the thugs in these countries that hold up charity shipments of food on the docks or take them for the stores houses of the ruling elites?  How about the genocidal maniacs running local militias who terrorize populations with rapes and pillaging?  No, bad idea.  Let’s go out and find all the single mothers with large families and tie their tubes.

The NYT Key to Poverty = Reduce Fertility I’ve linked to a short video on their site where you can see his interview of a Haitian woman upon which, in part, he bases his lunacy.  It amazes and scares me that we would believe the answer to poverty is reducing fertility.  And how realistic is this?  If we reduce fertility, then people can have unimpeded sex without the risk of pregnancy, which, I suppose is among the highest ethical goods of today. In fact, Kristof glowingly discusses President Obama’s opening up of funds for global family planning efforts (read: US subsidized abortions).  It’s not hard to know what is really at stake here. Whereas, in the past, we used to highly regard temperance, restraint and self-control.  Now, those things are only acceptable if promiscuity, choice and sexual freedom are allowed (although I’m not sure how that’s possible).

Any number of left- or right-wing websites that discuss poverty will attest to its complexity.  Maybe Kristof doesn’t really believe that fertility is the key; I hope not.  I’m not sure if fertility reduction has any place in these plans.  What about the dead beats who find impregnating women a fun sport?  They do so and, like the bum in the video, wish the woman who requests (rightly) to be supported that she’d “die.”

I think it is high cowardice that we’d target the women’s fertility as the answer and let the dead beat men go off scot free just to do it again.