I just got chided on an email list for taking the name of Jesus Christ in vain. If you feel I deserved it, then you won’t care about the provocation. If you’re indifferent, then I’ll state in my defense that it was an expletive in response to a lyrical and detailed description of eating something that’s still alive.
But do I need a defense? For the sake of my continued acceptance in the group, which I value, I offered a perfunctory but adequate apology. Really though, am I bound by the stricture of the Ten Commandments when I write? He began his email by assuring us all that he believes in freedom of speech: a wildly hypocritical statement he contradicted by telling me which types of speech he doesn’t think should be used freely. What if I want to write to the list about something that violates another of the Ten Commandments. Do I need to be careful not to offend anyone by admitting to putting another god before God, or coveting my neighbour’s wife?
This made me think hard about what language usage would cause me to take action and write asking list members to be more courteous. It’s a tough one. I guess remarks that demonstrated hate or contempt: sexist, racist or homophobic remarks would trigger my object reflex. To me, such language can cause real harm by tacitly enabling others to accept attitudes and behaviour that harms others. How does the careless use of a title some hold sacred hurt anyone? I don’t know.
In the end, offending people is something I generally avoid unless I perceive a good reason not to avoid it. In this case, arguing the point was only going to label me insensitive and politically incorrect. (Interestingly, the phrase politically incorrect was coined in the Soviet Union to describe speech or writing that showed a lack of proper deference to the Communist Party.) I badly wanted to start an energetic debate, but didn’t. This email list isn’t about that.
And this brings me back to my initial irritation with Mr. Christian, and the list, which is essentially about imagination. There’s an ongoing discussion thread that in my opinion has frequently descended to intellectual bullying, and once outright cruelty, to one of the members who seems quite unsophisticated. She hasn’t objected, so I haven’t on her behalf. Why does someone object to the careless use of a couple of words that don’t harm anyone, but remain silent in the face of public ridicule of someone who seems unable or unwilling to defend herself?
It’s a really big world, with lots of mean, harmful, dangerous and cruel things going on in it. Does me using words the Ten Commandments forbids add to the meanness, harm, danger and cruelty in the world? I don’t think so. Choose your battles, and the issues you bring your energy to. I don’t want to distress people for no good reason. I could have chosen another expletive, and will in future. Maybe distressing people brings more meanness into the world, but I’ll just say it: I have judgments about some of the things people choose to feel distress about.