Words Destroy or Hallow
“Let’s put him on blast!” I hadn’t heard the phrase before, but I instantly knew what it meant: whatever the business’s misstep had been, the call was sent out to grab it by its social media handles and tear it down. A bit of photographic evidence, a globally-audible, locally-tangible siren, and the business was tagged: the company was now “it”—a toxic bit of business that infected whatever and whoever it touched. So, tear it down and stay away. This doesn’t just happen with businesses. People get blasted, too. People scrub their Instagram and Twitter pasts to wipe away any bit of (perceived) filth before their Facebook posts are pressure washed with the words of others.
Anthropologist Mary Douglas noted the power and danger of dirt. We fear the filthy; dirt threatens disintegration. The best way to handle such dirty danger, whether located in the business misstep or social media slip up or political pariah, is to “blast” it: to use words to show the other’s filth, to distance oneself from the defiled, and to wash up the mess—all with one sweet Tweet.
But public humiliation is not new. In the fifth century, Augustine warned of the risks of wicked words (Confessions I:29):
- Watch out for hatred! We do more harm to ourselves by hating another than the other can do to us.
- Watch out for hostility! Harbored hostility toward another harms the self, even if it isn’t acted upon.
- Watch out for hubris! To pursue fame is to place oneself under a human judge and to perceive others as competitors.
Hatred, hostility, hubris: A deadly combination in a fifth century social spat where one was careful to pronounce every word correctly without care for the actual human being who happened to be the victim of their verbal evisceration. Canceling another with words isn’t just a 21st century phenomenon: the form of the public put-down has changed, but the feat remains en vogue. Neither have the effects changed. Words aimed to take down a livelihood or life do not simply impact their target. They also impact the speaker-typer-texter-poster. Like shrapnel flung back upon the grenade lobber, words of hostility, hatred, and hubris score the soul who would blast another from the silent side of a screen.
C.S. Lewis also warned of the effect of destructive words, the most powerful of which in his series The Chronicles of Narnia was called “the Deplorable Word.” The Word, uttered by the Empress Jadis to arrest the forces and very face of her sister as Jadis’ defeat loomed large, stopped all living things, including her own forces and subjects. Jadis had spoken the deplorable word to destroy everything but herself, preserving her own life until the time was right and she could be awakened. And while Jadis, the White Witch, isn’t quite human, her verbal blast poses a warning for every Son of Adam and Daughter of Eve. Jadis’ own world (and its flagship city of Charn) is over, but she has been let loose in the new world of Narnia, and Polly and Digory’s own world is not immune to the temptation that took her down:
“When you were last here,” said Aslan, “that hollow was a pool, and when you jumped into it you came to the world where a dying sun shone over the ruins of Charn. There is no pool now. That world is ended, as if it had never been. Let the race of Adam and Eve take warning.”
“Yes, Aslan,” said both the children. But Polly added, “But we’re not quite as bad as that world, are we, Aslan?”
“Not yet, Daughter of Eve,” he said. “Not yet. But you are growing more like it. It is not certain that some wicked one of your race will not find out a secret as evil as the Deplorable Word and use it to destroy all living things. And soon, very soon, before you are an old man and an old woman, great nations in your world will be ruled by tyrants who care no more for joy and justice and mercy than the Empress Jadis. Let your world beware. That is the warning.” (Lewis, 1955/1980c, p. 164)
The Queen presents a warning for using our own deplorable words. Contrasted with the singing of Aslan that brings Narnia into being, Jadis’ deplorable word only arrests death; it does not bring new life. This is not a passing theme. Jadis’ words reduce things to dust. In Charn, Jadis reduces “high and heavy doors” to “a heap of dust” (p. 57). In London, she attempts to turn Digory’s Aunt Letty to “dust” just as she had the gates in Charn (p. 76), but when she realizes this power of “turning people into dust” has left her (p. 77), she settles for hurling Letty across the room. Finally, in London, Digory believes that Jadis has reduced several policemen to “little heaps of dust” (p. 79). Her words and actions are powerful, no doubt, but they are not creative. Her words result in death and destruction. Her words, at best, only arrest her own death.
Likewise, the White Witch’s leadership in Narnia was only possible to arrest spring. She does not bring joviality; she can only keep it out. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Father Christmas says, “She has kept me out for a long time, but I’ve got in at last” (Lewis, 1950/1980a, p. 99). The Witch’s leadership is not fruitful because nothing grows in winter. While Charn had grown to become a great city under her ancestors, one assumes that the Witch’s leadership in Charn was likely similar to Narnia: it stunted growth and stifled life. In The Silver Chair, the owls say she “bound our land” (Lewis, 1953/1970, p. 52). In word and deed, the Witch cannot lead to anything of life; she cannot bring newness or construction. She can only preserve from death or bring to dust. Such is the life and soul of the one who would wield the deplorable word.
What might we glean from Augustine in the fifth century and from Lewis’ fiction? The justice-by-Tweet temptation is real, but yielding to that temptation is not for the one who would follow the Word made Flesh. For in the world of this Word – the only true world – we must foster, not hatred, hostility, and hubris, but instead, holiness. Within a sacramental worldview, every word is a kind of prayer. There is no word that is not overheard. God, the giver of words and the Word, is present. But the Word who allowed himself to be blasted, to be torn open as he was raised up, was deplored so that deplorable word users could become his preachers and prophets; so that words could be bound up in lives that do not simply arrest death in futility and bring pseudo-justice through rhetorical rage, but lead and love not with words of hubris, hostility, hatred, but of humility, peace, and mercy.
Augustine (1997). The Confessions (The Works of Saint Augustine I/1). Trans. Maria Boulding. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press.
Lewis, C. S. (1970). The Silver Chair. New York: Macmillan. (Original work published 1953).
Lewis, C. S. (1980a). The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. London: Lions. (Original work published 1950).
Lewis, C. S. (1980b). The Horse and his Boy. London: Lions. (Original work published 1954).
Lewis, C. S. (1980c). The Magician’s Nephew. London: Lions. (Original work published 1955).
Lewis, C. S. (1980d). The Last Battle. London: Lions. (Original work published 1956).
Featured image by Brett Jordan on Unsplash