ABC bemoans “megaphone tones”; “silence of cynism”

The addresses that Rowan Williams delivered at The Trinity Institute and at General Synod are old news by now, but there is commonality between the two that may have gone unnoticed. One commonality is the use and misuse of language.

In his presidential address at Synod he speaks of “the megaphone tones we are all too used to hearing”:

The debate over the status and vocational possibilities of LGBT people in the Church is not helped by ignoring the existing facts, which include many regular worshippers of gay or lesbian orientation and many sacrificial and exemplary priests who share this orientation. There are ways of speaking about the question that seem to ignore these human realities or to undervalue them; I have been criticised for doing just this, and I am profoundly sorry for the carelessness that could give such an impression. Equally, there are ways of speaking about the assisted suicide debate that treat its proponents as universally enthusiasts for eugenics and forced euthanasia, and its opponents as heartless sadists, sacrificing ordinary human pity to ideological purity. All the way through this, we need to recover that sense of a balance of liberties and thus a conflict of what may be seen as real goods – something of the tragic recognition that not all goods are compatible in a fallen world. And if this is true, our job is not to secure purity but to find ways of deciding such contested issues that do not simply write off the others in the debate as negligible, morally or spiritually unserious or without moral claims.

In his keynote address at the economics and ethics forum at The Trinity Institute he said:

To separate our destiny from that of the poor of the world, or from the rejected or disabled in our own context, is to compromise that destiny and to invite a life that is less than whole for ourselves.

To use a different but perhaps helpful metaphor, our life together reflects the way our very language works. We speak because we are spoken to and learn to become partakers in human conversation by being invited into a flow of verbal life that has already begun. It is simply and literally impossible for us to learn and use language without acknowledging dependence; aspirations to an isolated life in this context are straightforwardly meaningless. No word or phrase is simply a possession; it is there to pass on, to use in the creation of a shared reality. And the worst abuses and misconceptions of language are those in which words and phrases are ‘traded’ (an interesting metaphor in this connection!) in ways that do not seek to build that shared reality – whether this is a matter of using language as a weapon or using it as a way of concealing truth or using it to manipulate judgement and desire. It is not an accident that in a context where injustice and narrow judgement prevail in economic relations, language itself becomes stale or dead. If we think of how much ‘dead’ language there is around in our culture – in bad journalistic writing, in advertising, in propaganda, in official jargon – we may get a clear glimpse of just how bad our economic life has become. We talk, in another powerful and significant metaphor, of ‘debasing the currency’ of our speech. We know that it is possible for us to forget that we need living language – honest language, fresh metaphors, new puzzles and challenges – for our life to be as it should. We depend on others generating this living speech and we need to be able ourselves to contribute to it: the silence of cliché and cynicism is the diabolical mirror image of the silence that comes on the far side of the most creative speech. The silence of cliché is what happens when there seems no point in listening for the new, and no energy for active response to what is said. You might as well say x as say y: everything is exchangeable. Which is itself a characteristic of the market mentality: everything can be measured and thus replaced by something of equivalent significance as far as material profit and security are concerned. Paying the right kind of attention to the corruptions of language in our age is inseparable from attending to the corruptions of our economic exchanges; and it is no less of a religious obligation.

Emphasis added. (We are in debt to Ruth Gledhill for supplying the transcription of this address.)

Question of the day: Do you put yourself in the “megaphone tones” category? Thinking of the divisions in the Anglican Communion, how does one advocate “for our life to be as it should be” and, at the same time, use living language and not “megaphone tones”?

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