When disagreeing could still be eloquent
“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
— George Orwell, 1984
For the past year, Americans have endured — I use the word deliberately — the charges and countercharges of men and women running for the presidency of the United States. We must now endure another seven months of this ruckus, and as in most American elections throughout our history, mudslinging will be the order of the day.
On our college campuses, we are also seeing our language abused: free speech restricted, professors fired or muzzled, and certain speakers banned from campuses or shouted off the lecture platform. Some universities have created “safe spaces,” where students are protected from the free speech of other students, professors, and speakers. Other students demand “trigger warnings” in classrooms, advance notification of books or discussions that may distress them.
We have all watched politicians, commentators, writers, and ordinary citizens twist our language into outlandish pretzels. Example: politicians continue to declare Islam a “religion of peace.” There exists no religion on our planet that can claim to be a “religion of peace.” (Even Buddhists run amuck now and again.) After all, the man who founded Islam committed and condoned killing, made women subordinate in all ways to men, and decreed that people of other religious beliefs should be persecuted.
If we look at our personal communications — comments on various blogs, exchanges on Facebook — we often find the same degraded, warped use of language. Go to any political site online and read the comments. Unless most of the readers of a particular column are in full agreement with the author, there are barrages back and forth between those who disagree with one another, humorless and impolite (that’s putting it gently) verbal bombardments. In many of these “dialogues,” the participants curse, shame, and bash away at one another, using their words like broadswords to bleed their opponents. Ad hominem attacks are the preferred style of assault. Explain your support for Hillary Clinton for president, for example, and you will be smacked down with insults and obscenities. Share why you like Donald Trump, and you will be pilloried with curses and imprecations.
All of which lead me to my book review for the week.
Recently Karl Keating, a Catholic apologist and founder of Catholic Answers, contacted me about purchasing some books I have self-published. Keating is the author of such books as Catholicism and Fundamentalism and What Catholics Really Believe, and I have long admired his writing. It is clear, vigorous, and concise.
During our exchange of letters and books, he sent me his latest work, Apologetics: The English Way (Rasselas House, 2015, 303 pages, $15.99). The book relates an exchange of views regarding Catholicism and Christianity between English apologists for the Christian faith and those opposed to either Christianity or Catholicism. Most of these exchanges occur in the 1930s.
What struck me about these debates was not so much the thoughts of those involved, but the humor and good will toward those who held opposite views. They were tender in their regard for their opponent. They carefully chose their words to avoid confusion or unintentional insult. They were polite and reasonable in making their points.
In a word, these writers were civilized.
For me, Apologetics: The English Way is a “dipper” book, meaning that I read it randomly rather than cover-to-cover. What strikes me, as I have said above, is the civilized tone of the correspondence collected in this volume. Here, for example, are Hilaire Belloc’s opening remarks to Dean Inge:
“You have often attacked (and defamed) the Catholic Church in your pages. In that effort you have introduced, among others, my own less significant name. I propose to answer you.
“The task is the easier because your animosity leads you to open declaration of your hatred, and unlike so many of your kind, you are sometimes led by exasperation to be sincere.”
Belloc proceeds to forcefully but civilly take Inge to task.
Here is the Catholic Arnold Lunn at the close of an exchange with self-described “moderate Protestant” G.G. Coulton:
“I should like to thank you for the vigor of your attack. It is sporting of a writer in his ninth decade to issue these fiery challenges to debates and I am happy to oblige you. We have at least two things in common, a keen enjoyment of this form of controversy and a love for that dear country Switzerland, and though I should hardly describe myself as a Coulton-fan, you will, I hope, forgive me if I say how much I enjoyed your chapter on Adelboden in your attractive autobiography, Fourscore Years.”
Few Smoky Mountain News readers will find appealing the subject matter of Apologetics: The English Way, but most who read a book review column surely take some interest in language and its usage.
For me, Keating’s book has served as a vivid reminder of the crudity and chicanery of our present usage. It inspired me to try and choose my words more carefully when speaking or writing, and to be civil whenever possible to those who disagree with me.
Apologetics: The English Way has also made me more aware of the demeanor and speech of those running for public office. To curse your opponent isn’t a sign of strength. It’s a sign of weakness. To employ blunt speech is not always an indicator of truth and honesty. To play upon the ignorance of people is despicable.