It’s not a high bar, but it’s the right one–we should seek to say stupid stuff less often. Never saying something stupid is a worthy goal, but one none of us will meet. Stupidity is guaranteed. We aren’t perfect. Communication is difficult. Sometimes we fail to see the obvious. Everyone will stay stupid things. It’s a universal issue so we should be quick to give grace to others when they speak poorly, and we should be quick to seek forgiveness often because we will say the wrong things.
But there is a restricter plate to inappropriate speech. Diverse relationships limit foolish talk. As we meet others, understand their stories, and learn to appreciate differences, we say stupid things less often. The less diverse our relationships, the more likely our speech will be insensitive, inappropriate, and illogical.
The Danger of “Them”
Have you ever noticed that they are idiots? Their ideas make no sense. Their conclusions are clearly wrong. Their actions are immoral. They don’t love the country like you do. They don’t have the heart you have. They aren’t as smart as you.
They aren’t like you and that is their main problem.
But there’s an issue. I know them. They are in the church I pastor; they are my friends on social media; they are related to someone I love. Because I know them, I realize all your opinions about them are wrong. I might agree with your opinion on specific issues, but I can’t agree with what you are saying about them. You might be right about the issue, but you are wrong about the people. And if I have to choose, I’d rather be right about people than issues.
One of the great gifts of the pastorate is knowing a wide variety of people. While I don’t live in the most diverse part of the world, the pastorate has greatly broadened my circle of relationships. Beyond the pastorate, they say we are just three degrees away from any person on social media and the separation is shrinking daily. When the relationships are meaningful, it gives us empathy.
Relationships should equal restraint. They don’t silence the truth. Knowing people with a diversity of opinions or beliefs, doesn’t restrain me from speaking my opinion or promoting my belief. But it greatly influences how I do so. Wanting to honor my friends, I speak with compassion, grace, and concern. I choose words carefully. I try to value the relationship even as I speak about differences.
When relationships are absent, we often fail to restrain our words. Since we don’t know “them,” we don’t care about “them.” Our tongues are dangerous when unrestricted. They can easily demean, demoralize, and destroy.
Two Rules When Speaking About Others
1. If you don’t know at least one of “them”, don’t talk about any of them. When we talk about things we don’t know, our talk is stupid. We think we know what we are talking about, but we don’t. Additionally, our ignorance will make it more tempting to speak cruelly or unkindly. This tendency should limit our speech. Instead of stating our opinion or defining what “they” think, we should seek relationship. Find someone and ask questions, seek to understand perspectives, research to see if your understanding of others is right.
2. Even if you know a few of “them,” be careful about defining all of “them.” Our tendency is to find the worst opponent and to use that person as a caricature of the other side. It’s a great way to win a debate, but a poor way to be a human being. Every group is full of diverse thought and opinions. Just because you have a friend who is different than you doesn’t mean you have a right to define every person of that group. (See: Debate the Best)
There is a warning sign that our speech has jumped the guardrails and become stupid. Anytime we label others as a way to distinguish us from them, we are likely speaking in an unkind and unfair way. No one likes to be labeled. I can’t stand it when someone takes the opinions of another, attaches me to those people, and then dismisses my beliefs without real conversation.
If I don’t like it when other people do that to me, I shouldn’t do that to them. When we use labels, we are likely not interacting with an actual person or idea. Instead, we are engaging our perception of the other side. So we can easily dismiss “conservatives” or “liberals.” We talk about “us and them.” We highlight divides and try to prove our point. It feels good, but it’s stupid speech. It’s unintelligent and unproductive.
We live in a cacophony of voices. Everything is shouting their opinion about everything nearly every second. In this day, it’s tempting to yell our thoughts without ever spending any time to think. We need to do better. None of us will avoid stupid speech all the time. But we can minimize the amount of times that we speak foolishly. To do so would be a great gift to ourselves and others.