05 June 2013

Taming the tongue - the wisdom of Proverbs in a digital world

by Kiran Rai, Graduate Diploma in Theology student

The English language has suffered much abuse at the hands of students desperately hacking their assignments to scrape under the word limit in the final minutes before a deadline. Anyone who has experienced this burdensome task would know it is impossible to walk away without a heightened appreciation of the value of words. Over and over we find this value emphasised in the book of Proverbs. We read that words expressed, embodied by the mouth, lips, or tongue, can be used either wisely or foolishly. “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Prov 12:18), “the tongue of the wise adorns knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly” (Prov 15:2). This theme is famously explored later in James 3, where metaphors of a bit in the mouth of a horse, a rudder to a ship, and the ignition of a fire are used to demonstrate the destructive potential of words. James concedes, ""no one can tame the tongue"" (Jas 3:8).

Perhaps the modern equivalent should read, ""no one can tame the fingers."" The rise in emails, text messages, social media websites and other new formats has paved the way for an unprecedented amount of written communication for everyday people. In Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, author Mignon Fogarty observes: ""we're writing more often than people did twenty years ago because email and text messaging haven taken the place of phone calls, and blogging is a popular pastime."" You would be forgiven for assuming that these trends would correspond to a noticeable improvement in the state of written English. It does not take much trawling through YouTube comments, blog posts, or Facebook pages to find that more often than not, this is not the case. Additionally, the anonymity of the internet has created a previously unimaginable platform for fiery arguments and debates, littered with hateful language. For the online generation, this is nothing new; it is referenced in the 2012 pop song ""Same Love"" by rapper Macklemore: ""If I was gay, I would think hip-hop hates me. Have you read the YouTube comments lately? ‘Man, that's gay’ gets dropped on the daily. We become so numb to what we're saying."" New terms have even been coined for users intentionally stirring conflict online, such as ""trolls"" and ""flamers.” Have these tendencies arisen because of technology, or were they lying dormant, simply lacking an outlet? Regardless, this is the context we now find ourselves in.

The internet and other written media provide opportunity for both great encouragement and great damage. Now that anyone in the world can instantly reach an audience of millions, the ancient wisdom we find in Proverbs around language is more relevant than ever. As followers of Jesus working to make God’s kingdom a full reality here, we are required to creatively engage with these new platforms in a way that is neither passive nor inflammatory. When provoked, we will need to hold on to the guidance of Proverbs 10:19: “Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues.” Our energy is best spent not on vehemently defending a stance on contentious issues, but in fostering a network of encouragement based on productive action. It will involve leading culture instead of trailing it. So maybe we don’t want to tame the fingers; we just need to let them run in the right direction.

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