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.

Cultural Hangover

Not all of us have lived sanctified lives from the earliest moments.  I for one remember many years ago when a hangover was a popular topic (experience).  One time, a bunch of us young immortals settled into a discussion of our post-college-graduation dreams on many continents while indulging in as many types of liquid libation.  You name it and we discussed it and drank it.  Yikes.  What followed was not so glorious; quite inglorious (read: sinful).  You know what I mean.  But, I look back on that conversation and I somehow lose the thoughts of porcelain raptures amid the memories of the glorious plans and scenes etcetera.  Funny what gets lost in a memory.

Hangovers, however, they provide an interesting study.  A hangover is a consequence of an overindulgent behavior.  A physical manifestation of too much (alcohol).  I feel like for many months (years) I’ve been drinking, I’ve fallen asleep and now, awake, I think I’m experiencing a cultural hangover. I’m talking about the great American privilege of voting.  It is grand, no doubt and I wouldn’t change that at all.  Yet, maybe its cuz my man lost, but, I feel like I can’t get out of the bathroom.

I used to love the Drugdereport.  Now, I dread it.  Each time it loads I think to myself, “oh no.  What’s changed?”  For a long time we all drank from the 20 oz. cultural-change-draught.  It was cheap and ubiquitous.  No one cared about a hangover; we loved the drink and the experience of it.  Now I’m awash with bits about missle systems stalled in Poland, executive orders, stem cell research, bailouts for auto makers and Gorbachev calling for ‘perestroika’ in the USA.  This is not what this tasted like last night.

I’ve had children ask me if Mr. Obama was going to outlaw hunting and home-schooling.  Oh my.  These young ones surely are taking their cues from somewhere.  Are these legitimate concerns?  I don’t know.  It would be hard to believe if they were, still, I wonder if there are any others who are concerned about “change.”  Maybe it is the law of unintended consequences that bothers me most.

What I remember is that over time, hangovers disappear.  The body gets back into balance.  I expect that the same is true of our cultural moment.  It is hard to see what balance may look like.  Christians typically (and rightly) console themselves with theology.  Perhaps that’s our only way out.  God is over all of this.  Our elected officials are, at the foundation, His choices.  These men and women are ours in that they are what we need and what most honors Him.  Severe mercy.

What’s the deal with polls, anyway?

A new poll is out today – found it on Drudge: Obama – 45%, McCain – 44%. (Check it out: Gallup daily poll.) This is part of an inane daily presidential tracking poll. There is a cultural fascination with things like this. I’ve actually been interviewed by Gallup but not for this poll. If you read the Gallup poll you’ll see that this is considered a “statistical tie” and that means who’s reportedly on top doesn’t actually matter – it’s too close to tell. But the graphic on that site indicates its been like this for a while. The “so-what” factor has kicked in for me.

Is the fascination with polls driven by us – the “poll-ee’s” or by the pollers? Do we love to see whether our beliefs are out of whack with everyone else? Or do the pollers just like to feel on top? There’s probably a dozen reasons in either direction.

What if my beliefs were out of whack with everyone else’s? On a national election, I think it may not be so significant; I really don’t have to tell anybody anything. But, surely what you believe differs from your neighbor or co-worker, friend or even spouse on some issue. Then what? Do you act as the “neighborhood George Gallup” and poll your buddies and then change what you believe? Why would you do that?

There’s a fear of conviction in our culture. People are afraid to believe in something and you can tell whether you’re afraid by how many (or how few) people actually know what you believe. There’s a fear of people in our culture.

Well, that’s not really accurate. If I steal $50 from you, you will have no issues with conviction then. If I build a fence in your back yard, your words will come. If I t-bone you on the highway and then drive away screaming obscenities at you, then, well, that’s easy.

What about if I suggested that you should give money to a church instead of buy a new car? Or, write an editorial about rampant inner city crime? Or picket an abortion clinic? Then what? You may just waffle. You may cave to peer pressure.

Are we only willing to hold to principles when they’re “safe” according to our culture? Popularity is a big deal in your life. The problem is that many times what is right is not popular. If our commitment is to be mainstream (whatever that means) then we will waste our lives.