One important component of building an ever-advancing civilization that merits careful reflection is the role of language in this process.
There are certain words one hears repeatedly—in the messages of the Universal House of Justice, in reflection gatherings, in conversations among friends, and in society at large. Some examples are ‘organic’, ’empowerment’ and ‘coherence’. Perhaps at times, it would be fitting to pause and ask “Do I know what these concepts mean?” “Am I using these words carefully or am I treating them like jargon-du-jour?”
‘Organic’ and ’empowerment’, notably, appear to have been appropriated by wider society, and are used so frequently and thoughtlessly as to render them virtually meaningless. For instance, a well-known singer recently described her new album as an exercise in “female empowerment”. Almost every track on that album was about sex and the objectification of one or both genders. How empowering?
Is this just a matter of semantics, or is there something more important at stake here?
In Revelation and Social Reality, Paul Lample advances the argument that…
…language is the brick and mortar for construction of civilization; certain standards for its use are necessary, therefore, to ensure that the edifice does not collapse.
In other words, it’s not just a matter of semantics. Language is the ‘brick and mortar’ of the civilization we are striving to construct: it is essential.
In the publication One Common Faith, prepared under the supervision of the Universal House of Justice, we are reminded that the misuse of language is a grave matter, indeed:
…as words have been drained of meaning, so have the very material comforts and acquisitions for which truth has been casually sacrificed.
When we think of the educational process that we are engaged in around the world—one that has at the center of its curriculum the Creative Word—we realize just how powerful language can be. The Word of God has the power to recreate us, and the way we consult about the Word of God affects the way we perceive it, the way we enact it, and ultimately, reality itself. Our conversations, consultations and discussions around the guidance we receive from our institutions follow this same principle. The Universal House of Justice speaks to this matter:
We cannot help noticing, however, that achievements tend to be more enduring in those regions where the friends strive to understand the totality of the vision conveyed in the messages, while difficulties often arise when phrases and sentences are taken out of context and viewed as isolated fragments. The institutions and agencies of the Faith should help the believers to analyse but not reduce, to ponder meaning but not dwell on words, to identify distinct areas of action but not compartmentalize. We realize that this is no small task. Society speaks more and more in slogans. We hope that the habits the friends are forming in study circles to work with full and complex thoughts and to achieve understanding will be extended to various spheres of activity.
Another important aspect of the language we use has to do with freedom and obedience. Although we are each free to reach our own understanding of the implications and meaning of the Writings, this freedom does not extend to insisting on viewpoints that clearly contradict the explicit meaning or authoritative interpretation of the Text. Bahá’ís do not adhere to the belief that their own opinion holds primacy over all else, and must be careful not to use their words to try to insist on their own opinions or to subvert the views of others. The Universal House of Justice explains:
Beyond contention, moreover, is the condition in which a person is so immovably attached to one erroneous viewpoint that his insistence upon it amounts to an effort to change the essential character of the Faith. This kind of behavior, if permitted to continue unchecked, could produce disruption in the Bahá’í community, giving birth to countless sects as it has done in previous Dispensations. The Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh prevents this. The Faith defines elements of a code of conduct, and it is ultimately the responsibility of the Universal House of Justice, in watching over the security of the Cause and upholding the integrity of its Teachings, to require the friends to adhere to standards thus defined.
Language also plays a pivotal role in molding the relationships we will build among our friends and fellow co-workers. It can determine whether these will be sweet or acerbic, forgiving or retaliatory, unified or discordant. While language can be used for construction, it can unfortunately be just as powerful of a tool for destruction. Bahá’u’lláh tells us that we must…
…observe silence and refrain from idle talk. For the tongue is a smoldering fire, and excess of speech a deadly poison. Material fire consumeth the body, whereas the fire of the tongue devoureth both heart and soul. The force of the former lasteth but for a time, whilst the effects of the latter endureth a century.
Shoghi Effendi also says that if Bahá’ís…
…paused for one moment to think for what purpose the Báb and the Martyrs gave their lives, and Bahá’u’lláh and the Master accepted so much suffering, they would never let such [severe] definitions and accusations cross their lips when speaking of each other.
Furthermore, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá admonishes us to:
…never speak disparagingly of others, but praise without distinction. Pollute not your tongues by speaking evil of another.
He further says:
Do not complain of others. Refrain from reprimanding them, and if you wish to give admonition or advice, let it be offered in such a way that it will not burden the bearer. Turn all your thoughts toward bringing joy to hearts. Beware! Beware! lest ye offend any heart.
Ours is the inestimable privilege of working side by side, shoulder to shoulder, to construct a spiritually and materially prosperous world civilization. With kindly tongues, beautified with truthfulness, through meaningful and distinctive conversations, and with deeds that seek to reflect our noblest conceptions and aspirations, we build.