I had never seen Bill so furious. Low-key and affable, he had learned long ago to take our customers' frequent insults in stride. Nothing ruffled his feathers -- until that day when he nearly throttled the angry woman in front of him.
All it took to set him off was one word: liar.
As my sister-in-law is fond of saying, "Words mean things." Yet all too often, we postmoderns play fast and loose with them. In the process, they serve to separate us from one another in destructive ways.
Take all the non-human metaphors we use for people we find reprehensible. The elected official with questionable ethics is a skunk. The convicted murderer on the news is a monster. The Wall Street banker is a weasel. All of them are scum.
Alternatively, we turn to the paragons of evil to describe our opponents. As a politically passionate (and liberal) teenager, I saw my sainted candidate for the U.S. Senate go down to defeat. For a while, I went around calling the victor a fascist -- even though he turned out to be one of the most liberal Republican senators of my lifetime (Lowell Weicker). Similarly, conservatives find themselves compared to Hitler, progressives branded as socialist, those of "other" faiths depicted as in league with the devil. And then there's liar.
Why do we do this? Part of the reason, I suspect, is that we want to put as much distance as possible between "us" and "them." By using non-human metaphors, we can tell ourselves that we're the real humans and they're not. By using the metaphors of evil, we belittle our adversaries by placing them in categories that would never fit us.
How do we change this state of affairs?
We could, of course, just stop using those names. That alone would help ease the climate of hostility that plagues our society. And the practice of avoiding hurtful names can help us cultivate the habit of avoiding hurtful names. But it only goes so far in changing the habits of the heart -- the inner attitudes that feed those hostile thoughts.
So how do we change those attitudes? We can start by taking the uncomfortable step of accepting our humanity as it is. The Hebrew Book of Psalms is a wonderful place to come face to face with that humanity: in its pages, we see our capacity for rage and hatred and betrayal as well as beauty and self-sacrifice and love. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that all of this, at some fundamental level, is in all of us. Can we honestly say that we've never been angry beyond belief, or spread venom about our adversaries, or turned a blind eye to even the best of their ideas? And yet, more broadly, we read in the Bible that God loves us regardless -- all of us. These thoughts can give us pause when we try to separate ourselves from "them."
At the same time, we can foster inner change on an even deeper level. By placing ourselves in the presence of the Divine -- in prayer, in meditation, in the encounter with sacred texts, in any of the innumerable ways people have discovered over the millennia--we allow the Divine to shape us, in the same sense that friends "rub off" on each other. As that shaping occurs, we begin to reflect more and more of the Divine image, including that extravagant love we were just talking about.
It is difficult to use non-human metaphors for humans, to separate "us" from "them," when we have allowed this love of "them" to change our hearts. Loving those around us requires us to recognize them as fellow humans -- not to use language to belittle them or somehow separate them from us, but to be precise in our language to draw them closer to us, to create bonds, to bridge divides.
To temper our words, then, we accept the fullness of our humanity in the light of Divine love. We allow that Divine love to change our hearts. And we express it to humanity -- recognizing that we are all made of the same stuff. To quote the Quran, "O you who believe, no people shall ridicule other people, for [the ridiculed] may be better than [the ridiculers]."