The Power of Language

By Carlton Elliott Smith

For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.
—Ephesians 6:12

Through thinning ozone,
Waves fall on wrinkled earth
Gravity, light, ancient refuse of stars,
Speak of a drowning
But this, this is something other.
Busy monster eats dark holes in the spirit world
Where wild things have to go
To disappear

—lyric from "If a Tree Falls" by Bruce Cockburn

The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malignant language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek - it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language - all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.
—Toni Morrison, from her 1993 Nobel Lecture

I have the privilege of leading workshops on Compassionate Communication at congregations and at events throughout the Southern Region. In re-reading Toni Morrison's potent lecture on the meaning and function of language, I understand better what has made working and functioning so difficult the past several months: It has been the daily verbal aggression—the violent communication—coming from the highest offices in the country, coupled with the sense that there is no recourse.

Compassionate Communication (also known as Non-Violent Communication) is built around four components: Making an observation without judgment, identifying a feeling associated with that observation, identifying the (often unmet) need associated with that feeling, and making a request that benefits everyone involved.

Compassionate Communication presumes that both parties involved are capable of self-reflection, generosity of heart, and vulnerability. So what is possible when, for example, a spokesperson says something like, "our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned" …? Such a statement, as Morrison says, doesn't just represent violence—it is violence.

Virtually every day since January 20, we have been barraged with violent language intent upon limiting access to information, denying protections for the vulnerable, blaming the defenseless, and serving the interests of the oligarchs who own the country and the planet. In language, we create the world of tomorrow today, which is why prophetic voices through the ages are silenced through physical violence.

There is a busy monster eating a hole in the spirit world. That monster starts with violent language that sets the stage for violent acts. For those who think things will get better once the current actors are off the stage, I promise you, they won't. Clearly fascism didn't die with Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini or any other dictator. Those people are merely tools for the powers and principalities that wish to steal, kill and destroy.

On balance, we can be grateful that resistance to oppression didn't die with Fannie Lou Hamer, Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker or any other freedom fighter. We are yet here. Their legacy of language as an instrument of freedom lives on through us.

Let's use it.

In faith,


About the Author

Carlton Elliott Smith

Rev. Carlton E. Smith is the Regional Lead for the Pacific Western Region. From 2013 to 2020, he was a member of the UUA Congregational Life Staff Group serving in the Southern Region....

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