Tim and Rick resume the discussion on “rhetorical trash” and consider four types of words that litter our rhetoric: words of outrage, exaggeration, glee, and despair. They draw counsel from the book of Proverbs and communication theory for cleaning up the ways we speak to one another and highlight recent examples in the news of rhetorical trash and rhetorical treasure. This is part 2 of a 2-part discussion.
Rick Langer: And I tell you, it's extremely difficult to say I was wrong or that our political tribe was wrong. If we want to make it easier for people around us to be open-minded or even to change their minds, we'd do well to clean up our outrage and replace it with gentleness and respect, just as a disciplined posture towards other people who bear the image of God.
Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome to the Winsome Convictions Podcast. I'm Tim Muehlhoff, professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, California.
Rick Langer: And my name's Rick Langer. And I'm a professor here at Biola as well, in the biblical studies and theology department, and I'm also the director of the Office of Faith and Learning. And we've been spending a lot of time lately talking about the way we talk, the way we talk to each other, the polarization of our discourse, and the dangers of that. And in our previous podcast, we were talking about the extreme example of what happened recently with the events at our Capitol.
Rick Langer: And one of the interesting things that happened in and around the kind of the terrible events in the Capitol itself was an interesting moment when one of our congressmen was walking out after having completed the votes, Andy Kim, and saw all the trash in the Capitol, felt kind of a sense of despair, but also kind of moved for his sense of kind of patriotic value of the Capitol, talk to a policeman, borrowed one of the police, the garbage bags that they were using to pick up the trash, and start picking up the trash himself. And we got to running on that with a metaphor for kind of policing our rhetorical trash, the things that we say and do that lead sometimes, in the worst cases, to violence like this.
Rick Langer: So, we just wanted to pick back up on that metaphor and say, "Hey, how are we doing, so to speak, at policing our rhetorical trash?" So, let me pick up with one of the ones we didn't manage to get to last time, but we talked about words of falsehood being a thing that we need to police, and the idea of speaking to truth. Another thing we need to police is our words of outrage. And in fact, it seems in our discourse, we're addicted to outrage, and if you're writing something or saying something, until you've found some kind of a kind of outrageous claim, you haven't really done your homework. So, we go looking for them. So, on Wednesday morning, before events spiraled out of control, key Republican leaders, various ones, spoke strongly against fanning the flames of outrage about the election. And this included people like Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham who were speaking to the Senate about the things that they were about to do and were saying in effect, "Hey, we need to be careful here because this is on the verge of going too far."
Rick Langer: Mitch McConnell, in particular, noted that the election wasn't unusually close and overturning the outcome by mere allegations from the losing side would send America's democracy into a death spiral, in which every four years, legislators would scramble for power at any cost. Now, Mitch McConnell, for perspective, is a guy who's been a ardent advocate of President Trump throughout the course of his presidency. And so it's easy when a person, at this last moment, is suddenly saying things like that to be cynical. In other words, you want to maintain your outrage at this person. So, one might think that other people would welcome these comments from Mitch McConnell at this last moment, but that isn't what... Well, some senators did, and I should absolutely acknowledge that, but others did not. And they accused McConnell and Lindsay Graham and other like-minded Republicans of basically, political opportunism was the phrase that I saw used. Social media commentators, of course, went even further saying things like, "After aiding and abetting a psycho and his psycho supporters for four years, their words were absolutely worthless."
Rick Langer: Wow. Now, let me just make the point that Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham are absolutely public figures and they deal with this sort of response all the time. So, I'm not actually that worried about Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham, but here's the thing that I worry about. For them dealing with comments like this is part of ordinary life, but when we engage in this sort of rhetoric in one place, it's really easy for us to engage it in another. So, when we talk to a friend about a Mitch McConnell who we think of just being disingenuous and say that, it's easy to have that posture carry over in other places. We call out political leaders on social media in the morning, but how do we talk to our friends at lunchtime? Or what sort of things do we say to a family member over dinner? And I tell you, it's extremely difficult to say I was wrong or that our political tribe was wrong, and it doesn't make it any easier to have your past comments thrown back in your face.
Rick Langer: If we want to make it easier for people around us to be open-minded or even to change their minds, we'd do well to clean up our outrage and replace it with gentleness and respect, just as a disciplined posture towards other people who bear the image of God. Speaking words of appreciation for movements in the right direction is the best way to encourage such movements. Even if the movements should have been made much earlier, it still helps at that point to acknowledge, appreciate, and say thank you, instead of just flaming off into outrage again.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, Rick, and the word outrage, right? Heavy on the rage. This is me condemning a person. This is me so angry. It's not a conversation anymore. I'm pronouncing it upon a person and listen, the Winsome Conviction Project, we think there's times we should have outrage. And maybe we're not even angry about some of the realities in a fallen world that we should be, but we need to understand that outrage often is hard to contain. And the book of Proverbs is fascinating. Being a communication professor, I'm very interested in ancient Jewish writers talking about the power of words. So, listen to how they talk about words and what they associate it with. Proverbs 12:18, reckless words are presented as a piercing sword. A word spoken in the wrong way can break a bone, Proverbs 25:15. A person's spirit is easily crushed by the tongue, Proverbs 15:4. Just as the north wind can bring driving rain, so a sly tongue evokes an angry response. The scoundrel's speech is compared to scorching fire, Proverbs 16:27. Not only can negative words separate close friends, Proverbs 16:28, but a whole city can be disrupted by mockery.
Rick Langer: Even a Capitol city.
Tim Muehlhoff: Even a Capitol city, Proverbs 29:8. This leads David Hubbard, a New Testament scholar to say this, that the main message of the book of Proverbs when it comes to our communication is that your tongue is literally a lethal weapon to ourselves and to others. Now, we are not just saying that it is verbal abuse towards a person. We are saying that that verbal abuse is not contained anymore. And if you look at Gabby Gifford being shot in 2011, a Senator, and look at what happened in the Capitol, that outrage is very hard to contain. And so James says in the New Testament, "Listen, one spark from your tongue can set a whole forest fire ablaze." And in California, we do not take that lightly.
Rick Langer: That's right. For us, that's not like a abstract metaphor that we have to picture, but rather a literal experience that we commonly have. Yeah. So, let's just pick up that image a little bit, and here's a way to think about it. Think of the outrage as the flame, and let me give you the thing that is the fuel. That which is the fuel of the outrage is constant words of exaggeration, which is another bit of rhetorical trash I would encourage us to police. So, here's how that teased out for me with the Capitol events. I was watching headlines stream on my smartphone or on my computer, and I would click and read the related story. After reading the story, I've developed a bit of a discipline of following the links to find the original quote or the actual video of the event.
Rick Langer: And in the midst of these outrageous events, I was disappointed to see how often the headlines still exaggerated facts or juxtaposed quotes to make things seem even more outrageous. And so the exaggeration fuels the outrage. With dead bodies lying on the floor of the Capitol building and almost 50 law enforcement officers injured, no exaggeration of the facts was really needed, was it? And if a quote was 80% bad, we do no one a favor by combining it with another quote to make it 100% bad. We don't do ourselves a favor to turn the bad into the ugly. We'd do well to clean up our rhetoric by disciplining ourselves to speak with sober judgment, rather than exaggerating for the sake of maintaining outrage.
Tim Muehlhoff: Mm, that's so good. That's so good that. Contain it. Let it sit before you hit send. Let it sit a little bit before you write that email, you make that comment, and you just let it explode because once it's out there, it creates a negative communication spiral, that event... So, here's the interesting thing, Rick, about communication theory. Positive spirals eventually end. Right? There's only so much you can affirm a person verbally, physically. But negative communication spirals, we say, boy, they can go on and on and on, and eventually, they will have to end in violence, that words literally are not enough anymore, and I have to go beyond my mere words and express that, often in violent ways. And I think that is the great reminder of the Capitol and honoring the people who died that day is listen, I better put some speed bumps on my outrage because this could get away from me. And I think that's what James is saying, that spark got away from...
Tim Muehlhoff: So, there's a very famous case, and let's not pick on this poor family, who wanted to do a gender reveal here in California. Remember this?
Rick Langer: Yes.
Tim Muehlhoff: Which we get. And so they did it, but they did it with a bunch of dead brushwood laying around, and weeds.
Rick Langer: In the nearby area. It wasn't-
Tim Muehlhoff: In the nearby area.
Rick Langer: Yep. Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: And by the way, they even had water to contain it. But some sparks got away from them and they very quickly couldn't contain it. So, interesting thing Paul does in Ephesians, Rick. He says, "I want you to put away many different things." But he picks two things that are interesting, slander and clamor. Now, slander is this idea of me saying a negative to you. That's slander about another person. Okay? Then you turn around and say that same negative thing to another person, who turns around and says it to another person, who says it to another person. Now you've got a group of people that are now speaking negatively about a person and you are the spark. That is what Paul calls clamor. It's when a group [crosstalk 00:11:30]
Rick Langer: The crowd shouting the negative message, so to speak.
Tim Muehlhoff: And we better be pretty careful what fires we're starting and do we have ways of containing it. So, I think that's a great point. Can I add one motivation of how we better contain it? So, Jesus says a wild thing in Matthew 12:36. He says this, "You're going to be accountable for every word you utter. And as believers, we will stand before Jesus." And isn't it interesting that he's going to say, "I am holding you accountable for these words"? So, Rick, you and I have had a very wild experience. Teaching is totally different now. Right? We're in the land of Zoom. Hopefully, we're going to get past this one day, but now when we speak, as soon as we hit that Zoom start button to start our class, there's a little red dot that goes on, and that dot means you're being recorded.
Tim Muehlhoff: And you know what? It's had an interesting impact on me because most of my classes are not recorded, right, when I have live students. But, Rick, looking at that little red dot is just this really nice moment of saying, "Do I really want to say that joke? Do I really want to make that opinion that I've not really thought about, but I'm just itching to say it?" That's a nice little moment. Well, I think for all of us, that little red dot is at the end of our lives, Jesus is going to say, "I want you to speak about this because from the heart flows the words."
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: That's an interesting reminder.
Rick Langer: It's an interesting thing to think. There's always a little dot saying, "This is recorded."
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.
Rick Langer: And by the way, who's going to be reviewing that at the end of the age? It'll be Jesus. And similar things that Jesus said, kind of equating calling your brother a fool with murder. And again, you see this link between the words we use and then, ultimately, violence.
Tim Muehlhoff: So, can I ask you a quick question off the cuff?
Rick Langer: Sure.
Tim Muehlhoff: Okay, here we go here. When I share this illustration about Jesus is going to hold us accountable, believers, for every word we utter, here's what I often get from my students. But I thought we were forgiven for everything. I thought everything was forgiven. That's what justification is. So, why now am I having to give an account of my words? That seems like Jesus is going back and no doubt that recounting of my words is going to include slander, clamor, and things I'm embarrassed about and have been forgiven for. So, why's he drumming it back up? Any thoughts about that?
Rick Langer: Yeah. Well, so part of this is the whole issue of saying there's we do have a security in our ultimate salvation, but there's still an accountability in what seems to be imaged as sort of a judgment of reward somehow for things done well. And that's why Paul says, "Man, be careful how you build on this foundation that's been laid by Jesus." Some build well with rubies, and golds, and precious stones. Others are building with wood, strands, and stubble. And the idea is it'll be judged by fire. So, I always have this mental picture of people, okay, bring in all your good deeds. And so there's this big cart that comes in and they empty it all out, and Jesus says, "Okay, it's time to evaluate your good deeds." And you break it out, and whoosh. And the one person that's all stones and things like that, and after the flames come to it, it looks pretty good. The next guy, it's all wood, and hay, and stubble, and, whoosh. And you see this little angel coming out afterwards with the dustpan and little broom and he sweeps up the three little things that survived.
Rick Langer: And I think that's kind of the image we have where we're not sitting here living in peril of our immortal souls. But on the other hand we... Isn't what I want to say from Jesus not just I'll let you into heaven, but rather well done, thou good and faithful servant. And so these sorts of things are all about hearing that well done, good and faithful servant message.
Tim Muehlhoff: Good.
Rick Langer: Hey, here's another thing about policing our rhetoric here. Words of glee at the hurt of others.
Tim Muehlhoff: Schadenfreude.
Rick Langer: Schadenfreude, but I do the German and...
Tim Muehlhoff: Tell them what that means. Tell them what it means.
Rick Langer: So, it's celebrating joy that you have at the hurt and pain of others.
Tim Muehlhoff: The loss of Ohio State getting crushed by Alabama made me very happy because I'm from Michigan. But I digress, Rick. Pick up this point. It's going to be a good one.
Rick Langer: You do digress. I'd like to talk about policing our rhetoric.
Tim Muehlhoff: The red dot is on.
Rick Langer: So, for me, simply put, January 6th was a day of lament. Regardless of where we stand politically, it was embarrassing for me to see international observers reporting on our apparent inability to carry forward a smooth, peaceful transition of power as a nation. More distressing still was to hear nearly gleeful statements celebrating the hypocrisy of the law and order party. Hypocrisy is plain enough in this situation. I have no interest in defending or denying that. But having admitted this, I really think a season of mutual lament for what our country has lost is much more likely to heal than a season of blame casting or gleeful mockery. And in the fact that the gleeful mockery really just deepens the wounds and makes it even more difficult for those things to heal, and worst of all, more likely for them to repeat.
Tim Muehlhoff: Hm. Yeah. Hey, so I made a silly comment about Ohio State, but one of my best, dearest friends, he's on FamilyLife Speaker Team, we've been on crew staff forever together, is a die-hard born in Ohio, Ohio State fan. So, even when they lost, I did not call him for two, three days.
Rick Langer: And when you did call him, what did you say?
Tim Muehlhoff: All right, let's not go there, Rick. Let's focus on the two, three days.
Rick Langer: Wow, okay. In search of a good example, we will keep searching.
Tim Muehlhoff: Honor my respect for him and knowing, yes, this was a football game, but it does hurt. Right? So, I didn't call him. And I think that's what you're saying is understand that some people have been crushed by the outcome of this election. And some people really feel it was taken from them. It wasn't a fair fight and it was taken from them. We need to let that sit for a while and not just be gleeful that our candidate won.
Rick Langer: Yeah, actually, Tim, I appreciate you mentioning that. I remember we were talking about a survey that took place shortly before the election. And they were interviewing people to say what happens if the other side wins. And it was a huge percentage, like 70 to 80% feared for the future of our country if the other side won the election. So, you made the comment that many people who are disappointed, it's like we should be thinking vast numbers of people were profoundly disappointed, not just at the outcome, but fearful for the future of our country.
Rick Langer: And you could imagine if you were a supporter of President Trump that you fear this way and it had been flipped around, and President Trump had won and Joe Biden had lost, you'd be very fearful for where things are going. And this is this ability to say, "Wow, what is my friend feeling here? They're feeling what I would have felt if this whole tables were turned. So yes, for me to mock them right now is probably not super helpful." And for us to agree, and my hope would be on the events that took place, for example, at the Capitol, we really could agree and say, "Hey, this is not our best side." And this is a moment to mourn and to lament for our country and say, "Hey, you know what? We need to do better." We need to do better. Not just you need to do better.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, that's so good. And, Rick, there was a great metaphor of this. So, Tom Brady and Drew Brees, two icons who are going to be Hall of Famers in a heartbeat, and it was widely rumored that it was Drew Brees's last game. By the way, it just came out yesterday that he played the entire season with a torn rotator cuff in his throwing arm. Just came out yesterday. Let that sit for a second. But he lost the game. Brady won. It's amazing. He's with a brand new team. I forget this is like the 15th time he's going to the Conference Championship. He had every reason to be just ecstatic that his team won and it was so cool.
Tim Muehlhoff: So there's this image that came out on ESPN, video, of Drew Brees playing with his kids and out walks Tom Brady. And they give each other a huge hug and they have this really nice intimate moment. We can hear Brady saying, "Hey, man, you had a great season." And then Brees's wife walks up and gives Brady a huge hug. And you could just see Brady being reserved and respectful that this might've been the end of a great career, even though Brady had every reason to just celebrate. That was a nice moment of restraint. Now's not the time to be all happy in the locker room. This is with a person who might've just ended a career.
Rick Langer: Yeah, that's great. Well, one other set of words to police in our rhetorical trash, and then I think you have a story to tell at the end here to wrap things up. But one of the other dangers I felt at the end of the day kind with processing these events was the inclination to speak words of despair. And it's really easy right now, I think, for me to express hurt, and fear, and anger in these kinds of moments. But I don't know that we should ever let words of despair be our final words. The Bible consistently calls us back to hope, not a glib optimism that things will, hey, they'll all work out in the end or things won't really be that bad, but rather a confirmed conviction that in the midst of the badness that, "The Lord's hand is not shortened that it cannot save or his ear dull that it cannot hear," as Isaiah promises about God.
Rick Langer: And when we see human failures and suffer afflictions, we ought to be distressed. But we should also remember that we're just jars of clay, and the all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. So, I think to just stop and say the events that we have, the way people have behaved, they're jars of clay, and we've been profoundly reminded of that. But the gospel is all about there being hope for jars of clay. Right? You don't have to get cleaned up before you come to Jesus.
Rick Langer: And there may be things we've said as we've talked about the rhetoric here over the course of the last two podcasts, you felt like, "Wow, are they pointing their finger at me or my friends or something like this?" I think you probably heard us point a finger a lot at ourselves because usually, we don't have to go that far to move from the moments to find these things, to move from our own heart because that's where a lot of this is. But that idea of saying, "Hey, wait, we need to find and speak words of hope, even in the face of hardship, difficulty, and despair." I think that is part of the Christian voice, that we need to police that every bit as much as we need to police these other things.
Tim Muehlhoff: Paul has a great example of that, Rick. So, when Paul writes his letter to the church at Rome, Nero is 16 and has just ascended to the throne when he writes the letter. And in it, Paul is prophetically anticipating what we know as Nero's persecution, which was a bloody time in church history. So, in Romans, he says this, "Both things are true. You are like sheep being led to slaughter, but you are more than conquerors." He's not denying what's coming, but he speaks words of hope that ultimately, God is going to redeem all things. And that's a good word for us today as God hasn't stopped redeeming things today.
Rick Langer: Yeah, I think one of the things that's makes that particularly important is when you feel like things are going off the rails in the country. And I think actually at this particular moment, it's easy for both parties to feel some of that. Right?
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.
Rick Langer: And so I think that fear is natural. And this is, I think, where we need to have sort of a balancing faith in God's not ultimate outcome, but even His providential control over the circumstances in which we live at any given time. And that does not guarantee, it's clear from biblical history, that does not guarantee that we will have been born into a happy moment.
Tim Muehlhoff: Right.
Rick Langer: We may be born into a very difficult moment, but God is nonetheless providentially working through these human affairs to ultimately accomplish His purposes. We are looking forward to redemption of all things, and Jesus will prove faithful. His arm is not shortened that it cannot save, and His ear isn't dull that He cannot hear. God is still in heaven and we need to call that to mind.
Tim Muehlhoff: That's great. Hey, let's end on a happy note.
Rick Langer: All right. Let's do it.
Tim Muehlhoff: All right. Here's the happy note.
Rick Langer: I thought that was a pretty happy note.
Tim Muehlhoff: That was a great happy note.
Rick Langer: That was a happy note.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes, that was.
Rick Langer: All right. Go ahead. You get a happy note too.
Tim Muehlhoff: That's awesome. So, there is a tradition, you may not be aware of this, but when a president leaves the Oval Office, he leaves a letter for the person that's coming in right behind him. It's a very well-established tradition. Some people have feared that President Trump would not carry on that tradition. After all, he did not attend the inauguration of President Biden. But it was so good, Rick. I literally said to my wife, "Honey, let me read this to you," because the headline in the USA Today was this. Biden says Trump wrote him a very generous letter before he left the White House.
Tim Muehlhoff: So, hey, let me just say this. Kudos to President Trump who no doubt feels bitterly disappointed that it was not a fair election, carried on this great tradition. He did not show the contents of the letter, but it sparked other presidents and even wives of presidents to say, "Hey, this tradition is a really cool tradition." So, Secretary Clinton shared the letter that George H. W. Bush wrote for her husband, Bill Clinton. And she makes mentioned in this as she posts it that it was a very contentious, bitter election.
Rick Langer: It was. I remember.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, remember?
Rick Langer: I remember that.
Tim Muehlhoff: And she said, but in light of that, President Bush wrote a great letter. She says this, she said, literally she's posting it. It's handwritten. You have to see it. It's really nice. She goes, "This is the letter from George H. W. Bush's presidential library. I hadn't read it in a long time until yesterday. It moved me to tears just like it did all those years ago." And then here's how the letter... This is so great. In the very end of this note, he says this, "You will be our president," and our is underlined, "when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success is now our country's success, and I am rooting for you. Good luck. George."
Rick Langer: Wow.
Tim Muehlhoff: That is a nice moment.
Rick Langer: That is.
Tim Muehlhoff: A bitter election that he lost, but he wrote this note saying, "I want you to know I am rooting for you because your success is our success." I want to highlight two things. Regardless of how you feel, President Biden is our president, and we, as Christians, are called to pray for the success of our president. That doesn't mean we can't respectfully protest, can't mean that we can't vote as God leads us. And by the way, there's going to be a course correction in two years. Right? We're going to get a chance to revote when it comes to the House and the Senate. Thank you, founders, for thinking of that. But in two years we get a chance to vote again. Right? But let's underline that. Here's George W. Bush, who is bitterly disappointed, no doubt. But, listen, you are my president. You're our president. That's a good word. And let's pray for the success as we protest and strive against parts of the Biden administration that we feel like do not push forward Jesus's kingdom. He is our president and we should pray for his success.
Rick Langer: I have to admit, this is actually an application of some things that we were just talking about earlier. I was encouraged to see that President Trump had left that for now President Biden. And I was surprised but I was deeply pleased. And it was funny when that moment happened. I talked about like exaggerating and the outrage thing. I don't want to let go of the outrage. And I thought, "Oh wow, this is a great moment to apply that," because of the things I've been feeling, particularly feeling about the last few months of this process, that I've just felt like has been really difficult. And it was good to stop and say, "Hey, wait a minute, whatever else has happened and whatever else may happen in the future, that was a good thing, and let me celebrate that. Let me just celebrate that."
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, kudos to President Trump.
Rick Langer: Yes, absolutely, absolutely.
Tim Muehlhoff: Kudos for him for doing that. Hey, thank you for joining us at the Winsome Conviction podcast. If you've enjoyed this episode, we encourage you to subscribe to the Winsome Conviction podcast on Apple Podcasts, or Spotify, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. We'd also encourage you to check out our winsomeconviction.com website for more resources. We have blogs, talks, opinion pieces that we've written, interviews. We have an interview with Richard Mouw that is to die for. So, please check out winsomeconviction.com and you'll get a bunch of different resources. But we're here to resource the church. We're here to resource Christians, your small groups. That's really what we're all about. So, again, thank you for joining us. We don't take it for granted.