Accountability, Poetry, and the Power of Words

Accountability has been in the news this past week, as both President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have impressed upon the world the need for Syria to be held accountable for their use of chemical weapons. I think they’re right–but that’s neither here nor there; I have been thinking about accountability on a much smaller scale–albeit on a more personal, intimate one as well–thanks to this post:

The title is “Own What You Think,” and it’s about the decision that’s been made at Huffingtonpost to move away from anonymous comments. I think that’s the right decision, too.

 I don’t know any pastor who, at some point in her career, has not received the pointed [if not out and out hostile] anonymous note, often beginning with the words “I thought you should know that people are concerned about/talking about/angry about,” etc., etc., etc..  It’s always “people,” never “me,” and those notes are rarely signed.  In their worst forms, they’re personal attacks, thinly veiled threats, and diatribes about one’s incompetence, ignorance or indifference [Professors know about these anonymous comments, too, which sometimes come in the form of student evaluations.]; and they suck the air right out of you every time.

Now I am aware that there is a power differential in both congregations and classrooms that can create a sense of vulnerability in the parishioner and the student, making both loath to take ownership of a negative opinion for fear of reprisals [although any pastor or professor who would somehow “punish” someone for criticism is a danger in all kinds of ways and not fit for the position].  I get that.  The problem is, however, that words really only have meaning–that is, words only function–in a context:  Ludwig Wittgenstein [my favorite philosopher] said that language has meaning only in use, and explained what he meant using the concept of “language games.”  According to Wittgenstein, meaning does not reside in the bare words themselves, but rather is created by communities in interaction with the world and with one another.  So, an example Wittgenstein uses is the word “ball”:  is it a round object that can be thrown, or a formal dance, or an indication of a good time?    The four letters mean nothing in and of themselves:  rather, the meaning of the word depends on its context in a sentence.  Like the rules of a game, Wittgenstein argued, the rules for the use of ordinary language are neither right nor wrong, neither true nor false: they are merely useful for the particular applications in which we apply them. The members of any community—accountants, college students, or rap musicians, for example—develop ways of speaking that serve their needs as a group, and these constitute the language-game they employ. Human beings at large constitute a greater community within which similar, though more widely-shared, language-games get played. 

How all this relates to anonymous comments, then, [if you are still with me], is that an anonymous statement is made outside the context of a “game” if you will–that is, outside a known relationship in which the comment might be interpreted.  So, imagine you get an anonymous letter that says “I’m really angry with you, and what you said really hurt my feelings.”  What are you supposed to do with that?  And, more to the point, what do those words mean?  Oh, I know–on a basic level, they mean that someone is hurt and angry, but without knowing who wrote the letter, you know nothing about the source of those feelings, the context for those feelings, your role in those feelings, or how to interpret and respond to those feelings.  That’s what I mean when I say you don’t know what they mean:  what they signify, the reality they are attempting to describe.  In that sense, they are “meaningless.” The only thing those words can do is wound; and in so doing, they aren’t functioning as meaningful “language” at all, but rather as weapons.  In other words, anonymous comments are always only destructive, never creative:  they never build up, they only tear down; they never strengthen, they only weaken–relationships, resolve, self-understanding.  I’m for moving away from them, too.

Of course it is hard to talk to one another, especially when we have things to say that are painful, challenging, and unwelcome, but those hard words also are an integral part of any relationship, any “game” we play as a community; and to deny them, avoid them, or ignore them takes power away from all the words we use with each other–it makes them all seem less real, somehow.

So let me close this post with a shout-out to Seamus Heaney, poet of “strife and soil,” “earth and spirit,” who died on Friday:  If anyone knows the power of words, and the importance of speaking the truth–even the painful truth–and taking ownership of one’s words for the sake of creating and deepening relationships, it’s a poet, and he was one of the good ones.

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