Harsh words and gentle answers


An ancient proverb teaches, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but harsh words stir up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). After two and a half millennium we have still not learned. Fighting words have become the coin of our civil discourse and media. We are very slow learners.

Fight, lynch, war, lock up and other harsh words echo in our ears. Images linger in our minds’ eyes of violence, fires, destruction, death and rage enflamed by angry words. Words shouted and gestures displayed in the midst of road rage are followed by fights, gunshots and death. We hear calls for truth along with calls to speak truth to power. For some that is truth with malice, followed by threats of violence. A wise teacher said, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth defiles them … The things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart and defile them (Matthew 15:11, 18). Is it the intent of the heart rather than the word that is evil?

Recent debates center around what people mean when they call for others to fight and wage war. The true meaning is hard to determine because one cannot see what is in the mind and heart of speakers. Words have more than one connotation. Jihad is defined as struggle. For our Muslim neighbors and friends, it means striving to conform personal and social life with God’s guidance. In some hearts and contexts, the word becomes a cry to fight for Islam, to kill infidels, to martyrdom, even to engage in terrorist acts. The difficulty is in determining the intent of the heart. A related
challenge is how to call people and inspire them to join together opposing evil in themselves and in society using gentle words.

Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. proposed non-violence in individual and public responses to evil and injustice in both word and deed. They avoided being violent whenever possible because violence always results in more violence. The goal of non-violence is not to destroy an enemy but to convert minds and hearts. Using soft words does not mean to cringe or cave in to evil, but to overcome evil with a greater power. Both leaders knew that non-violent protest requires careful prior training followed by internal discipline during protests. They successfully led their people toward liberation and freedom. Moral and religious foundations for non-violence are currently absent in public discourse — nowhere to be found. No leaders or groups committed to non-violence seem to be present prior to or amidst recent protests degenerating into violence and destruction.

Readers might remember chants of Wabash College students at athletic contests, “Wabash Always Fights!” Such words roared by 900 young men could be dangerous, unless well disciplined. The necessary personal and group discipline is instilled in Wabash men by the Gentleman’s Rule and by a good liberal arts education. “Wabash Always Fights” stirs the heart and inspires them to do their very best in athletics, in academics and in life. As I noted in a speech to Wabash students 35 years ago, the chant means “Wabash men always stand firm for character, for peace, for truth, for justice, for the oppressed, for a new and better world.”

Gentle words are better than fighting words threatening our neighbors. If we discipline the anger in our hearts and lower the heat of our rhetoric, we might have a more peaceful country and more abundant life.


Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.


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