Is What We Say Really That Much More Important Than What We Do? A Thought on the Topsy-Turvy World in Which We Live
By Ken K. Gourdin
Lord knows that more than a few times, I have been the victim of words that wound. Lord knows that, regrettably, I have made others the victim of my words as I have wounded them, to my everlasting shame. See also this, from the incomparable Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2007/04/the-tongue-of-angels?lang=eng.
I’m certainly loathe to contradict Elder Holland. Nothing I write should be construed as doing so. That having been said, remember the words of the Savior and the parable of the two sons in Matthew 21:28-31:
28 But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard.
29 He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went.
30 And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not.
31 Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first. . . .
Then, too, it has become all-too-easy in our world, in which taking offense seems to happen on an industrial scale, to find examples fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy about those who “make a man an offender for a word” (Isaiah 29:21). But, while not discounting in any way the importance of what we say, since, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” (Proverbs 29:11), I do wonder, more than a few times and in more than a few quarters, whether what we say has completely overshadowed what we do.
This is the theme of a meditation I recently posted on Mormon Dialogue and Discussion [sic]:
Building bridges is considered a nice thing to do, and building any kind of a wall or barrier is considered a not-so-nice thing to do. While I recognize that, oftentimes, in a way, the way someone speaks of something can be hurtful, we seem, more and more, to be living in a topsy-turvy world where words seem more important than actions.
Sometimes, it seems as though someone could commit the most atrocious, most heinous, most reprehensible, most unforgivable action imaginable, and many of us would seek to assign some sort of sociological or psychological justification to it: “Well, how he sees the world obviously doesn’t reflect reality,” we might say, “but if I, too, saw the world the way he sees it, even I might do what he did.” Use the wrong word, on the other hand, or merely express a belief that runs counter to the prevailing social orthodoxy, and out come the pitchforks and the torches!
It’s easy to explain why something is “wrong” according to the prevailing social orthodoxy: often, social orthodoxy simply is built on an ad populum scaffolding. When the “wrong” belief is expressed, simply scoff at it and dismiss it with an airy wave of the hand and say [perhaps with a snort to emphasize the point], “Nobody believes that anymore!” And then, since we’re living in a world where words do much more damage than (even psychologically or sociologically understandable, if reprehensible) actions, reinforce the point by mentioning the truly cardinal sin: “Besides, it’s hurtful!”
The very raison d’etre of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution used to be to defend even (and to defend especially) unpopular opinions and beliefs: “I may not agree with what you say or with what you believe, but I will defend, to the death, your right to say it or to believe it.” I may or may not agree with absolutely everything someone believes, what he says, or what he does (in fact, if the absolute is the standard, it’s virtually certain that I won’t), but that doesn’t mean I believe he doesn’t have a right to get an education, to hold a job, to earn a living, and so on.
Now, the standard discussed in my previous paragraph has been turned on its head: If, on the other hand, someone simply believes or says the “wrong” thing? Hound him out of the school where he said it, hound him out of his job, make it so that not only can he not work there, he shouldn’t be allowed to work anywhere, destroy his reputation entirely, make it impossible for him to live in “polite” society! (“Ay, there’s the rub, innit?!” After all, impoliteness is the real cardinal sin!)
And when we build what are supposed to be enduring social institutions, such as, e.g., law, on an ad populum scaffolding? Eventually, we’ll end up in precisely the world Martin Niemoller describes:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Anyone is perfectly welcome to stay silent simply because it’s not his ox that’s being gored (because, after all, remember: In this world, it’s what we say that’s the cardinal sin!) but, if he does stay silent, he shouldn’t expect anyone else to speak up for him when, finally, it’s his ox that is being gored.