Every Tool, a Weapon

every-toola-weapon

Audio Podcast of this sermon available here

Video shown before the sermon: Fox News Interview with college senior about inclusive language campaign at University of Michigan 

By now, you’ve probably heard the audio, though you likely wish you hadn’t. The latest example of the impact of words in this election cycle broke on Friday. I’d tell you the words uttered by one of our presidential candidates, but I can barely get myself to say them, even if I weren’t standing at a pulpit.

In case you weren’t following the news I’ll summarize by saying that they were vulgar comments about his willingness to physically take advantage of and assault women, and his acknowledgement that this was all fine because he is a man with money and power.

A few hours after this story broke, he began apologizing. He said he was sorry if his language offended anyone, if his words had a hurtful impact. He called it “locker room banter,” and said we should move on.

Only later did he apologize for the words themselves. The words don’t represent who he really is, he said.

I want to be clear as I tell this story that our congregation welcomes people regardless of their political affiliation. When we talk about being liberal, it is a religious not political designation.

We welcome all who welcome all, regardless of your political views.My telling of this story and my critique of it – and it is a critique – is moral and religious, not political.

Our faith does not care what political party you are for, the moral question is whether or not we see one another as kin – every single one of us of all genders and sexual orientation, races and cultures, all of us beloved – living into the reality that we are all in this together.

And the particular question I want to explore with you this morning is what our words have to do with living into this reality – how much and in what way do the words we use matter in manifesting our mutual belovedness?  If we are honest, yet our words are hurtful, is that better, or worse?  After so much spin and special interests masquerading as news, maybe honest, hurtful words are preferable to dishonest, kind ones?  Does it matter if we intended them to be hurtful? And how far will we go to insist that no one is hurt by our words, regardless of our intent?

This latest news cycle is only the most recent example of this question that many of us, regardless of our politics or religion, are thinking about these days.

The question of inclusive language – or what some call “political correctness” – has been a driving force in the election, and a rising question in our society for at least the last thirty,
and probably more like sixty or seventy years. Over these years afterall, mankind has become humankind, and colored became negro, and then black, and also African-American….your uncle jerry who never married became gay and then part of the gay and lesbian community and then GLBT and then maybe, you’re not sure…queer….?
I’m sure we could all name other examples – where we used to say _____ and now we say _______.

The words changed, but also, the social order behind those words has been changing.

Maybe you think this change in language is a good thing. Or maybe it’s annoying, or overly sensitive. Maybe you’re afraid you might accidentally say the old word, or maybe you are afraid someone else will say the old word.Maybe the new word makes you feel unsure or out of place, maybe you aren’t even sure what the new word is or should be. And maybe most of all, you’re afraid that you, or someone you love, wishes for the time when the old word was ok, but not just because of the word, but because it would mean you wouldn’t have to figure out how to accept or understand all these others, these strangers,
maybe you’re afraid that your own or someone you love is resistant to changing the words because they don’t want to change the reality.

That’s a lot of fear to hang on our words. A lot of fear, and anxiety, and pain.healing

As religious participation has declined in our country, there are fewer and fewer communal places for people to express fear, anxiety, or pain – about words, or anything. But one place where pain continues to show up, is in the thoroughly modern phenomenon known as, the comments section.

On youtube and on articles posted online these nearly-anonymous communal spaces allow you to say without much consequence or accountability, what hurts.

Comments sections are a place in today’s world for us to process our pain. Immaturely…reactively… bitterly – but process, and hold nonetheless. Pain doesn’t just go away, aftarall, one way or another it will make itself known.

One video I watched to prepare for this service was called “Do College Students Hate Free Speech? Let’s Ask Them.” It was a series of interviews about the idea of micro-aggressions – those small, seemingly inconsequential moments where someone is given a message that they are less than equal, less worthy, especially applicable to people whose identity or experiences is other than white, straight, middle-class, Christian….the idea is that over time, these small moments add up, and do real violence to one’s spirit and selfhood.

The interviewer explored how far the students thought we should go to ensure we don’t offend. Most of the students said: as far as possible….. Which caused the comments section to totally freak out.

The commenters made fun of the college students’ inability to handle “words they don’t like,” and the “absurd” policing of language. They said things like:

  • I come from a world where none of these people would’ve even survived.
  • This makes you wish for an alien invasion to come and wipe us all out.
  • This is the result of women having too much power.
  • Boy they are in for a rude awakening. College doesn’t last forever. Real life is going to kick their….

You get the idea.

It may be hard to hear the hurt in these comments, but underneath the dismissiveness and defensiveness, it is there.

None of them said the words being debated weren’t painful. They were upset because life is about getting over that pain. Get tough, or you won’t make it. No one is going to take care of you. Buck up. Deal with it.

Reading their comments, I realized, they learned this.

It is the micro-and-often-macro-aggression of their lives, of most of our lives.

The lessons of disappointment and neglect, of loneliness, and the lack of lessons or tools to deal with human emotions. It is the coping technique of putting up a wall around your heart, closing up, closing off. And then it is living like this, and teaching your kids to live like this, because it’s how life is, and we better get used to it. So much untended pain.

We all know the saying, sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me. Parents teach this to their kids, but ironically, by the time we’re grown up – and teaching it to our own children – we know, it’s a big lie. We know, words – whether written on a screen or spoken from a pulpit or whispered at a child or said in a locker room
or caught unknowingly on a live mike we know, words can hurt, or heal, bind, or break. Just as powerfully as their non-verbal counterparts.

Words point to an underlying meaning, a reality that is often laden with power – and as words shift, so does that power, and meaning, and our lives. Through words we shape and make our whole world.

In our faith, words are not just powerful, they are sacramental – we no longer celebrate communion or other routine and embodied ritual in our worship service. What remains? Mostly words.

Last Sunday, our ritual of installation – words.

Words of promise and aspiration made real our commitment for our new ministry.

Other traditions might have had a laying on of hands, a kneeling down embodying the call to ministry, a blessing of water or oil….we have words.

Many of us left other faith traditions because of the words. There were words that hurt or excluded or no longer felt true.

I remember when I learned that the word “Amen” meant, Yes, or I believe that. It was about the time that I was starting to question the creedal statements of my childhood religion.  My first small step away from the community was when I decided to stop saying the word “Amen.”

Because words matter so much to us, our faith has rewritten hymns, multiple times.
Maybe you know the joke about how Unitarian Universalists haven’t always been the best singers, but not because of a lack of musical talent, but because we’re too busy reading ahead to see if we agree with the words.

All of this care comes – of course – from our own past experiences, where words stung, made us feel unworthy or unloved, unimportant or deficient – experiences where we too felt lonely, disappointed, confused.

Like those commenters, we want to prevent this pain from happening – to us or to others. But rather than walling off our hearts, we wall off the words. We find those words that hurt, and we say, let’s not say those anymore, anywhere.

These good intentions, however have sometimes created our own kind of fundamentalism, and a new sort of orthodoxy, where any word or story might be deemed off limits because it might hurt or offend someone, might contradict our most cherished values and instead reveal racism, homophobia, sexism, classism, ableism, our general ignorance….all bubbling below the surface of our otherwise carefully chosen words.

You may have seen the recent article in the Atlantic called “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The authors described law schools unable to use the word “violate,” because it offended students who had been assaulted, or teachers issuing “trigger warnings” for nearly every class, as most things stirred up something in someone and students insisted on a certain level of protection.

The authors remind us that this new wave of thinking about language is different than the longer movement towards inclusive language – the latter was an effort to include more diverse perspectives and peoples in our language; the new effort is about protecting emotional well-being.

All of this brings to mind Sean’s sermon last week, and his advice that before we can heal from any pain, we first have to feel it.

Neither walking on eggshells to ensure no one ever gets hurt, nor putting up a wall around our hearts and telling each other to be tough – neither of these will help us heal our hurts, or transform the painful isms we swim in. After all, creating a safe place for the beloved community does not mean no will ever be hurt, or uncomfortable – it just means that when our promises are broken, when we fail ourselves or one another, we promise to try make it right, to learn, and grow, and become better, together.

language-policeIn your order of service, you’ll find an insert from the site produced by UU lay leader Alex Kapitan, called Radicalcopyeditor.com This site is trying to address the moral questions around language, trying to help “language live up to its radical potential, serving the ends of access, inclusion and liberation.”

As Alex says on the site, “we need language to help the widest number of people to communicate effectively and access the meaning behind language. Language rules and standards are tools for bridging the differences between us – rather than increasing the divide.”

Questions around language, in this lens, rather than increasing our fear, anxiety and pain, should help us each “understand the many different ways people experience the world.”

Alex’s approach allows us to tend to the pain and shame that is present both in the comments section, and in those of us who would have been interviewed as champions against micro-aggressions. Even better, it sees all of this pain as one.

On your insert you’ll see a couple of helpful tools from Alex’s site. On the one side it differentiates radical copyediting from language policing. Language Policing says “there’s only one right way to use language and correcting people is more important than being in relationship with them.”

The alternative lens of radical copy editing “promotes respect for all and adds more love to the world by bringing respect and care for each other by way of their words.”
The first is transactional, rule-bound; the second is covenantal, relational, and faithful. More than any particular words, the lens Alex offers is that even though words matter, the relationship and the capacity to keep growing in love, matters more.

This lens refrains from shaming anyone about language, or setting too many absolutes, and it makes space for mistakes. Which doesn’t mean that “anything goes.” Radical copyediting, for example would ask us to lean into the words that we heard in the news over the past few days, and to say with clarity, words like these, about women, about any other human being, about bodies, these words hurt. And they hurt us all.

This new framework would hear this hurt and get curious. Compassionate. Try to learn about the experience and take it into consideration, within the framework that we are all in this together.

spectrum-of-language-final-1The second chart offers a tool to help with this. It’s what Alex calls the Spectrum of Language. It doesn’t name any language “wrong” or off limits, but it does help convey the impact of our words, so we can try to be more aware, and try to align our impact, with our intent.

In one of her songs, folksinger Ani Difranco reminds us, that “every tool is a weapon, if you hold it right.”

In the same way, every weapon, can also be a tool. Words might hurt, or heal us, and that mostly depends on how we’re holding them.

As people of faith, through this election season, and far beyond, let us hold the words that we say, and that we hear with a great tenderness and curiosity, listening for the call of courageous love through each whisper and shout, each emoji and email, even in the comments section and in the taped apology. Let us keep tending to the pain, finding within ourselves a prevailing grace, trusting that truth continues to be revealed, and we see only partially. And knowing that we are all, in the end, hurting, and hoping still and always, to heal.

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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