The Hong Kong-based Anglican writer, Alice Wu, reflects on the power of quick words in an age of social media.
I recently found myself really missing those “good old days” – like when everyone’s biggest worry was the Y2K millennium bug. Today, a lot of us are suffering from outrage fatigue. The atrocious, the horrendous, and the outrageous happen on a daily basis. By just wagging the tongue, toxic words are spread at an incredible speed.
A tweet can bring down companies, undo years of carefully calibrated diplomacy, erase decades of human progress in civility and reverse the goodwill and incredible efforts of generations of peacemakers to bring the world to the cusp of World War Three. The world has been dictated by senseless, hateful and non-existent words (“covfefe”, any one?).
It’s easy to get caught up in what was said. And in today’s world, where lying and assaults on facts are expected daily, it gets exhausting: too many battles, too many problems, too much evilness . . . all of which leaves us overwhelmed, cynical, and hopeless.
Indeed, it’s not the size of the “Nuclear Button” that matters. Jesus, in the Gospel according to St Matthew, reminds us of what truly matters –
“Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles. . . What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:10b-11, 18-19).
It may be true that people, especially politicians, would say anything to get “support”, whether it is to get “likes” and “shares”, or pander to their base, even if that means resorting to the language of the hateful and ignorant. But the truth is that it’s the heart of the person with the toxic tongue that is vile, for “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:5b-6).
Instead of dousing the fire, the Bible tells us that our words, can, indeed, do much more: “that your words may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).
Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, who had been in seclusion for five months with the husband who had been temporarily silenced because of her “unlikely” pregnancy, spoke beautiful words when her pregnant cousin Mary came to her. Elizabeth had every reason to be but was not bitter. Elizabeth had every reason to seek validation but focused on the Lord. And her words inspired Mary’s response – the Magnificat.
Every time we speak – in person, on social media, etc – we – have a choice. We can choose to be shackled by deliberate hatred, deliberate fear and deliberate ignorance, and be a prisoner of anger, resentment and bitterness. Or, we can choose to follow Elizabeth’s example, use our words to build others up and inspire.