Civility Project: Banning Words, Part 2

In Part 1, I argued the recent moves to ban words — either officially or symbolically — exposes the growing lack of a shared moral vocabulary in our society. The goals of those who seek to ban certain offensive words are often laudable, namely, the creation of a more respectful and civil public space. In Part 2, I argue seeking to ban words actually undermines these goals because it hinders the kind of character formation required to have such a civil public space.

Sheryl Sandberg wants us to ban the word “bossy” from our vocabularies, especially when applied to girls. The Ban Bossy campaign says when boys assert themselves they are praised for displaying leadership, but when girls exhibit the same behavior, they are called “bossy.” The Girl Scouts, Michelle Obama, Condoleezza Rice, Beyoncé, and Arne Duncan support the campaign to encourage young girls to become leaders. They hope the efforts of this campaign will end the double standard.

The use of the term “ban” is intentional. While the leaders of the campaign do not want an actual law banning the word bossy, they do want us to take this matter so seriously that we act as if laws prohibiting its use exist. The strong language is meant to stimulate us to consider our words. Just as the Ban Bossy campaign wants us to consider our use of the term bossy, I would like us to consider their use of the term ban.

Ban is a legal term. A ban places an external control preventing certain behavior. External controls are often necessary to protect the public from harm, but they are limited in their ability to foster a civil society. The Ban Bossy campaign hopes we would reflect on what words we say, to whom we say them, and what we communicate. An external control such as a ban — even an imaginary ban — will not necessarily lead to that reflection. Martin Luther King, Jr. points out the necessity and limits of external controls in his speech “Towards Freedom.”

It may be true that morality cannot be legislated but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me; religion and education will have to do that. But if it keeps him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also.

When my son began opening drawers and cabinets containing items that could harm him, my wife and I placed child safety locks all around the house. For a toddler who lacked impulse control, those external controls were necessary to keep him from hurting himself or destroying our hand mixer. The locks, however, only taught him he could not get into certain spaces in our home. He did not appreciate and the locks could not teach him the moral reasons for his banishment from the appliance cabinet. As he gained motor skills and figured his way around some of these safety precautions, my wife and I have had to change our parenting to helping our son develop internal controls. It became foolish to say to him, “You can’t go into that cabinet,” when he was clearly able to bypass the safety lock. We had to help him understand that he should not go into that cabinet because it was good to be safe and good to treat our hand mixer with care. Our parenting required us to teach him to internalize values like respecting other people’s property. (This is, to state the obvious, a work in progress.)

Let me be clear. In questioning the efficacy of campaigns to ban certain words or phrases, I am not saying we ought to use those terms. I support the elimination of harmful speech from our vocabularies. Racist, sexist, homophobic, and otherwise bigoted language has no place in public discourse. Our language should emerge from a commitment to respect our neighbor, especially when he says something with which I deeply disagree. Furthermore, the work the Ban Bossy campaign does to encourage girls in leadership is impressive and deserves support. My point is that we should not think the work needed to foster a civil society is accomplished because we have banned disrespectful language.

We like to apply legal terms on offensive speech because saying one is banned from using certain words appears to have more force than saying one ought not or should not use those words. In reality, the moral language of ought and should carries far more force because it requires us to reflect and choose how we treat others. When we consider what we should say, we have to think about what legitimate claims others have and how we go about respecting those claims.

To grow as moral beings, we need to develop internal controls, that is, we need character formation. Our language must shift from asking what can we do to what should we do?

Consider David Brent, the paper company manager played by Ricky Gervais on the original British version of the television show The Office. Brent can occasionally recognize sexist language. He knows the laws of England and the policies of his company do not allow him to say sexist things in the office, but he has no understanding why women would be offended by such talk. Thus he remains utterly sexist while attempting to adhere to the external rules his company and the state have put in place. Brent says all sorts of sexist comments and objectifies women regularly because the external controls have not produced the kind of reflection and change Brent needs to be a truly civil manager. He must develop internal controls, that is, to go from,”I can’t say sexist things,” to, “I shouldn’t say sexist things.”

With regard to offensive speech, banning words merely places an external control on us when we need to develop internal controls so that we might have a more civil and respectful society. Having a person say to himself, “I can’t call a girl ‘bossy,’ because it’s offensive and is a banned word,” ends the moral discussion. He does not have to move beyond the prohibition. So long as he doesn’t use the banned word, he has fulfilled what is required of him. “I shouldn’t call a girl ‘bossy,'” opens further moral reflection. Now he must to ask, “If I shouldn’t call a girl ‘bossy,’ what should I do instead?”

The task then becomes shaping people who respect one another and whose language emerges from that respect. We will start with the positive question, “What kind of society do we want?” instead of the negative question, “What sorts of actions do we not want in our society?” The former seeks a vision of the good life whereas the latter plays Whac-A-Mole with objectionable behaviors. Of course this means we must reflect publicly on what is the good life and how our neighbors fit into that good life. When our vision of the good life includes children growing into their full potential so that they might help shape a more just world, we will see that we should encourage girls to use their gifts of leadership to help others. Then, as our characters are properly formed, we will choose to not call girls “bossy” when they assert themselves. We will naturally celebrate young women growing into good leaders.

Civility Project: Banning Words, Part 1

Since 1976 Lake Superior State University has published an annual List of Words to be Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness. The exercise offers people a chance to release their inner curmudgeon and ridicule neologisms or clichés that have saturated popular culture. Usually the suggested words are harmless, but their overuse has become annoying. Man cave. YOLO. Selfie. Twerking. Staycation. Viral. Occasionally the lists contain an offensive or politically-charged word (Mister Mom, mama grizzlies, Obamacare, fiscal cliff, waterboarding), though the gripe is usually not with what those words represent, but with how they have become a lazy shorthand enabling our avoidance of real debate on serious subjects.

The editors of the annual list claim no real authority to prevent people from using those words. While the List of Words to be Banished is a silly and fun distraction, in reality it is not so distant from where our society has moved. People have attempted to ban through legislation and lawsuits the use of certain words. Many of the words in question are racist, homophobic, or otherwise degrading. Those seeking to legally prohibit certain words intend to protect a level of civility in public discourse. Not surprisingly, others have pushed back against these attempts to restrain language.

Arguments against these prohibitions commonly take one of two forms. First, those against banning words tell people who are offended to toughen (or lighten) up. This is a largely unhelpful move because often I do not have the negative history with the phrase that my neighbor does and thus I do not fully understand why he would find such a phrase offensive. The call to toughen up often shows a lack of empathy. The second argument wants to protect the freedom of speech and worries about prior restraint and the establishment of an Orwellian Thought Police that dictates what we can and cannot think. This second criticism has more going for it than the first, but both objections do not address the underlying issues. The attempts to ban certain words highlight the growing lack of a common moral vocabulary in our society and poor character formation. I’ll address the lack of a shared moral language in this post and the poor character formation in the next.

Speech can be extremely dangerous. We have numerous historical accounts of how derogatory language dehumanized people and such language helped create environments where violence against marginalized groups was legitimized. I recently heard a speaker cite two examples to show this phenomenon: the Nazis in Germany didn’t see themselves as killing Jewish people, they were eradicating “rats”; and the Hutus didn’t attack their Tutsi neighbors in Rwanda, they “crushed the cockroaches.” Violence against these minority groups became easier to justify because the descriptions used by the dominant cultures made the victims seem less than human. Those seeking to ban certain words often have valid arguments for why these words are unwelcome. The trouble is that because we no longer have a common moral vocabulary, we have few options to help us engage these controversies.

Postmodernism broke down the idea that we have a single, dominant narrative driving our ethics. In many ways, the deconstruction thankfully allowed those on the margins a voice. We were to now consider other points of view beyond the most powerful. Postmodernism was also supposed to give us a marketplace of narratives competing with each other, but that marketplace never really materialized. Instead narratives sit in their silos not knowing how to interact with each other. In the United States we do not have robust discussions of how we ought to live. We find ourselves at a place where each person is to decide what is right for herself, but her decisions are to not have any bearing on what is right for her neighbor.

The trouble with the siloed reality is we have to live with each other. We have to make choices that will affect other people in our community. We need some way to interact. Into the vacuum of no common moral language we have placed the last vestige of shared values: the law. Since we cannot appeal to a common moral basis when conflicts arise, we have to appeal to what is legal. The moral question of whether we should do something has been replaced with the legal question of whether we can do something. We do not ask, “Is it good for me to do this?” We merely ask, “Am I allowed to do this?”

When this applies to offensive words we can no longer say to another, “You shouldn’t say that,” because we lack a shared sense of what is good for a person to do. We may say it is wrong to use offensive words, but we hold little hope that our moral reasoning will convince anyone else. In order to then protect the public square from damaging speech we have to resort to making the use of such speech illegal.

One may argue most of those calling for the banishment of certain words don’t actually write laws in which people who use the offensive phrases would be punished by the government. They use the term “ban” symbolically to express the severity of these phrases. The campaigns to ban harmful words want us to treat the words as if it is illegal to say them. Yet, the language of banning reveals the growing lack of a shared moral vocabulary. We do not appeal to what is civil or good. We may appeal to what is right, but even the definition of right has thinned out to mean what is legally right, that is, what is allowed. Is it because we know we cannot assume others share similar definitions of civil and good?

I do not wish to establish a new universal moral language as I do not think one exists that all will accept. Attempting to create one would be a foolhardy feat and would run two risks. First, since most people would not willingly give up their own moral philosophy and adopt another just for the sake of having a common morality, we would run the risk of coercion or worse, oppression, in which I force you to adhere to my moral language. Second, if we commit to not using coercion, we would run the risk of creating a moral Esperanto. It would have high ideals, but in reality, very few people would use it. You would probably see advertisements for it on college bulletin boards and never hear of it otherwise.

I hope instead for that marketplace of competing visions of the good to be a reality. This would be a space where we share our traditions with each other, learn from different views, praise what is good and critique what is bad in each view, and even try to convince others to adopt our moral visions. Such a marketplace demands serious personal reflection and character development, something the calls for the banning of words cannot produce. We have to reflect on what we believe is the good life and figure out how to explain that vision to others. I’ll explore these matters in part two.

Want to be Generous? Join a Generous Tradition and Community

In a recent Slate column, Brian Palmer, writing about Christian missionary doctors working in Africa, asks, “It’s great that these people are doing God’s work, but do they have to talk about Him so much?”  Palmer is an atheist and in the column he publicly wrestles with his distrust of religious motivations and admiration for those working among the poorest of the world’s citizens, often receiving little compensation for their efforts. Palmer cannot shake his skepticism that Christian missionary medical workers are practicing a poorer form of medicine than their secular counterparts, but in the end arrives at a begrudging respect for the missionary doctors and nurses since they do the work few others seem willing to do. Still, he clearly sees the missionary medicine as an unsatisfying placeholder until better, secular medicine can pick up the slack.

Palmer seems to claim medicine is best practiced when it is free of religious thinking. He merely applies to medicine the old Enlightenment fantasy that all human endeavors — from the physical to the political sciences — would be better off if they freed themselves from theological traditions. But religion has long played a role in Western medicine. Most American medical students still take the Hippocratic Oath in which they swear to Apollo and “call all the gods and goddesses” as they commit to practice medicine ethically. The Christian commitments to love one’s neighbor and care for the sick not only aided in the faith’s expansion in the Roman Empire, they have also given rise to medical schools and hospitals. To remove the theological influence from medicine would be to create a whole new tradition of medical work that would be foreign to the system we have today.

But I do not intend to give an account of the historic theological and religious roots shaping modern medicine. Rather, I want to reflect on the phenomenon that Palmer illustrates — namely, the great amount of medical missionaries in the developing world. He writes:

[W]e are deeply reliant on missionary doctors and nurses. The 2008 ARHAP report found that in some sub-Saharan African countries 30 percent of health care facilities are run by religious entities. That system is crumbling due to declining funding, possibly motivated in part by growing Western suspicion of missionary medicine. We have a choice: Swallow our objections and support these facilities, spend vast sums of money to build up Africa’s secular health care capacity immediately, or watch the continent drown in Ebola, HIV, and countless other disease outbreaks.

A doctor need not be a Christian to sacrifice her own wellbeing in order to help those most in need. Plenty of atheist and areligious doctors work to save lives in rural areas and slums. But it would seem one is much more likely to engage in philanthropic activities if she is rooted in a tradition that encourages such behavior. If we, like Palmer, think it a good thing that doctors and nurses are making sacrifices to help others, we have to begin to ask how are such generous people formed? From where do those values and energies emerge? A tradition that teaches the good life is found in giving away oneself for the sake of others, that doing good works is what we are made for, that in serving others we serve the creator and source of reality (i.e., God), is much more likely to produce altruistic behavior than a tradition that teaches, say, radical individualism and self-gratification are the highest forms of good. It is not a mistake that people who are a part of a community that believes sacrificially loving others is essential to what it means to be human will help their fellow human beings, often at great cost to themselves. That so many Christians are working to help the most vulnerable in the world is to be expected given the God they worship.

Excited to Get Back to Parenting: My Report from the 19th Annual At-Home Dads Convention

Over the weekend I attended the 19th Annual National At-Home Dads Convention in Denver, Colorado. This was my third convention since becoming an at-home dad and once again I found it to be an enriching, encouraging, and rejuvenating experience. I appreciated reconnecting in person with a group of dads who have committed themselves to full-time parenting. These men are some of the most creative and compassionate guys I know. I continue to marvel at our different backgrounds and our passion for our families.

These conventions have become for me an annual opportunity to renew my vocation. Usually I cannot get out the door and on the plane fast enough. I notice my patience at home wearing thin. I find myself nagging my son. So, I relish the idea of a quiet plane ride in which I can read for a couple of uninterrupted hours. When I remember I won’t have to cook a meal for a couple days, I can’t control my smile. The chance to simply hang out and have fun with adults all day sounds scrumptious. But I end up receiving so much more than a mere respite from my daily routine. As the conventions end, I find myself excited to get on the plane back home. I miss my family and cannot wait to spend time with them again. I feel compelled to thank my wife for how she supports me in this vocation, I want to hug my son and employ all the healthy parenting tips I learned from the convention’s speakers and my fellow dads. Each year I think I’m just going to get a break and recharge my batteries. Instead, I am reminded of my calling and encouraged to serve my family in fuller ways.

I came into this convention feeling more physically exhausted than in previous years. My son is an outgoing, gregarious toddler whereas I am deeply introverted. I longed for some time alone and didn’t engage the other dads as much this year. I watched from the periphery, catching bits of conversations. This was the biggest convention yet with 106 attendees, many of them coming for the first time. It was a constant blessing to watch these first-timers smile in disbelief that something like the National At-Home Dad Network and this convention could exist. Time and again I heard dads say they couldn’t imagine how wonderful this convention could be and didn’t realize how much they needed the solidarity of other dads making choices similar to theirs.

The Denver Dads who organized the convention did a great job crafting a fun, meaningful, and thought-provoking experience. We went to a baseball game between the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks at Coors Field. Yes, the game pitted two cellar-dwellers against each other, but what’s not to love about a baseball game in a wonderful stadium on a gorgeous night? The actual content of the convention was very solid, from the speakers and panels to the break-out sessions. We heard from three wives of at-home dads and they encouraged us greatly as they described their family structure, the challenges they face, and their gratitude for the lives they have created with their husbands. Dads gathered in groups according to their kids’ ages and we were able to pick each other’s brains about best practices. I also attended sessions on passing along our faith to our kids and photography. Other sessions  included online safety, healthy marriages, and family finance.

Our keynote speaker, Barbara Coloroso, gave a funny and practical discussion about dealing with kids. More importantly, however, she reminded us that we each have a parenting philosophy that we need to articulate. Parenting demands we think about who we want our kids to become. She said so much parenting and schooling teaches kids what to think, but if we are to raise kids who stand for good values and against injustices (she’s a former Franciscan nun), we need to teach them how to think. We want our kids to internalize the values that lead to good and just decisions, even when such decisions might make them unpopular. The parenting needed for these kinds of kids goes beyond knowing good techniques to creating an environment in which kids will develop self-discipline. Coloroso argues we have to commit ourselves to three convictions:

  1. “Kids are worth it.” (That is, kids are worth our time, energy, and love because they are children and for no other reason.)
  2. “I will not treat a child in a way I myself would not want to be treated.”
  3. “If it works, and leaves a child’s and my own dignity intact, do it.”

Parenting out of these convictions will move us from merely trying to get our kids to mind us to helping our children believe they are valuable and capable of good moral action.

Three years in and I’m already looking forward to the next convention. If you’ve found this blog because you’re an at-home dad or know an at-home dad, please consider attending the convention next year in Raleigh, North Carolina. You will be enriched and renewed. If you have any questions about this last convention or the upcoming ones, leave them in the comments section. I would love to connect with you. Parenting is tough. The African proverb says it takes a village to raise a child. We parents need to remember it is up to us to connect with our fellow villagers so our kids are raised well. We need the wisdom and encouragement of our neighbors. The At-Home Dads Convention is just one opportunity for us to learn from and support each other.

Michael Brown, Ferguson, and the Church Risking Irrelevance to the Gospel

Many evangelical Christian writers have responded to Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a police officer and the subsequent protests and civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. I appreciate how they let the gospel of Jesus Christ inform their views of these events. The African American leaders of my denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC), wrote a response emphasizing their commitments to reconciliation and to standing in solidarity with those who suffer. Dominique Gilliard, a pastor in the ECC, gave an interview to Amy Julia Becker on Christianity Today’s “Thin Places” blog in which he offers some broad strokes advice on how Christians can be agents of reconciliation. He says, “To foster reconciliation and healing within churches and the broader culture, Christians must be humble, repentant, and longsuffering. This process begins by having candid conversations about race, history, and injustice.” Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, offers some other steps Christians can take to address the reality of systemic racism in our nation with the truth of the gospel. Christians need to educate themselves, listen from those who suffer, stand in solidarity with them, and act for justice. Morgan Lee of Christianity Today reports key findings from research on white and black evangelicals’ views of race. The results sadly show their views are moving further apart, with 69% of white evangelicals now believing, “one of the most effective ways to improve race relations is to stop talking about race.” But we should be careful not to think all talk of racial reconciliation is a white and black matter or the events in Ferguson only effect white and black people. Eugene Cho, another ECC pastor, writes churches cannot ignore what happened in Ferguson and must instead address it head-on, for, “The integrity of the church is at stake because when it’s all said and done, it’s not a race issue for me, it’s a Gospel issue.” Thabiti Anyabwile, writing at The Gospel Coalition, also argues the costs for churches to ignore these matters are extremely high. He challenges evangelical churches—really, white, conservative evangelical churches—to respond to racism or face becoming irrelevant. It is not the irrelevance to the larger culture that concerns him, but irrelevance to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Anyabwile writes:

Around the country evangelical leaders participate in “racial reconciliation” conversations and repeatedly ask, “How can we diversify our church?” or “How can we attract more African-American members?” Why would diverse groups want to belong to an evangelicalism that does not acknowledge their diversity where it hurts when it matters? You want diversity in your membership roles? How about forgetting your membership statistics and further diversifying the picket lines and protests thronged by the disenfranchised in their just fights? We don’t want to be your statistics—whether wrongful death statistics or church membership statistics. We want a living, breathing, risk-taking brotherhood in the gospel lived out where it matters. Until evangelicalism can muster that kind of courage and abandon its privileged, “objective,” distant calls for calm and “gospel”-this or “gospel”-that, it proves itself entirely inadequate for a people who need to see Jesus through the tear gas smoke of injustice.

Looking through the New Testament, particularly the letters of Paul and the book of Acts, we see two great themes: the fulfillment of God’s promises through Jesus Christ and the reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles in the new covenant. In other words, the majority of the New Testament concerns itself with grace and race. In Ephesians 2, one of the great chapters of Scripture, Paul describes the power of the gospel to take people who were dead in their sins and make them alive again in Jesus Christ. The first part of the passage contains one of evangelicalism’s favorite statements, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (2.8-9, NRSV) But we often stop reading around verse 10, even though the argument continues. Paul goes on to show how this new life affects the relationships among Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus. Ethnic and cultural distinctions, while still important, are no longer barriers to fellowship. Just as Jesus Christ made reconciliation between God and people possible, he also makes reconciliation between ethnic groups possible.

Ephesians 2 is not unique in the New Testament. Rather, it fits well with other passages that show the good news affects more than just our relationship with God. Paul does not see reconciliation with God and reconciliation between races as separate objectives—they are the same mission. Notice how explicit Paul is when he talks about ethnicity and race. Paul does not believe, “one of the most effective ways to improve race relations is to stop talking about race.” He seeks to improve race relations by bringing the tensions and conflicts into the light of the gospel. The New Testament does not discuss race relations in the abstract. Rather, the conversations are very real, very earthy. The New Testament contains passages on how we share a common table, what ethnic markers we place or do not place on our bodies, how we worship God together, etc. The discussion of racial reconciliation in the New Testament assumes many of the early congregations comprised different ethnicities.

How can we white evangelicals say our congregations are faithful to the New Testament witness if we do not discuss and pursue the dual themes of grace and race? I wonder if we don’t give as much attention to the second half of Ephesians 2 because we do not worship in diverse communities and our privilege in the larger society means we don’t have to think about race on a daily basis. Perhaps we white evangelicals don’t pay attention to the biblical emphasis on ethnicity not because we find that topic uncomfortable, but because we find the New Testament’s teaching on the subject irrelevant to the issues our congregations face. The real issue is, however, that our congregations risk becoming irrelevant to the New Testament. If our faith communities do not wrestle with the challenges that come from diverse people groups sharing life together, whole swaths of the Bible will not make sense to us.

As the events in Ferguson show us, we need racial reconciliation not merely so we can enjoy one another’s musical traditions in a worship service. The gospel places demands on us to stand with those who suffer and seek justice on their behalf. Racial reconciliation cannot take place only within church walls, though we obviously have a long way to go on that front. The gospel compels us to take risks and walk with those who seek justice. Anyabwile is right to offer the challenge to let go of our membership statistics for faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus, which stands beside the oppressed.

I appreciate Anyabwile’s post because he reminds us having uncomfortable conversations about race is not enough. Christian communities cannot be satisfied with honest, gracious dialogue. Those conversations are absolutely necessary, but not an end to themselves. If our conversations about race do not lead us to prayer and to, “further diversifying the picket lines and protests thronged by the disenfranchised in their just fights,” then our conversations are merely theoretical exercises. Theoretical exercises will not help establish the vision of the African American Denominational Leadership of the ECC of “a church and society where reconciliation and justice are indispensable norms.” These leaders rightly remind us it is the cross of Christ that will break the wall of hostility. That is, Jesus’ actions and not merely his words create peace and justice. As followers of Christ, we must remember Jesus’ example and allow our theological reflections lead us to action.

We have to ask how have our communities of faith addressed the events in Ferguson? What has been the conversation? How have we prayed for peace and justice? What actions have our congregations taken? How has this event catalyzed our commitment to stand with those who suffer?