In the movie The Princess Bride, one of the minor villains of the tale has a consistent gag where everything that the supposed Dread Pirate Roberts does is “inconceivable,” only to be gently reminded by one of his reluctant underlings that that word does not mean what he thinks it means. After all, if someone keeps doing something that is “inconceivable,” then perhaps the problem is not with the behavior of the other person but with our lack of imagination, that we cannot understand what someone will do. After all, to someone who has a vivid imagination, just about anything can be conceived, including a lot of things that should probably not be conceived. Whether I speak from experience or merely from academic knowledge on that matter, I leave it to the reader to decide.
In his comedy series, a Canadian fellow named Buckley has a running gag where he talks about uses of words that are improper, mostly by rap artists, saying, “That’s not what that word means” with words like diva (not the female version of a hustler, whatever Beyonce things), racks, swag (which is the stuff one gets at a business conference, or something involving fabric that covers windows), and bands (as in the rubber bands that hold wads of cash together). Again, singers often use words that don’t mean what they think they mean. Some singers (like Dinah Shore) as early as the 1950’s made a living out of hinting naughty matters while making one’s plain words innocuous. Whether one finds this to be cute and clever or immorally subtle depends a great deal on where one stands.
In the somewhat recent past, I spent several months in the uncomfortable place of listening to weekly sermon messages that I had to parse for their meanings because the messages existed on two planes, one surface meaning that was largely innocuous-seeming, and a more subtle hidden meaning that contained the real point of the message, one that was often highly dishonest, political, and deeply at odds with the surface meaning of the text. I cannot say that those months were enjoyable, and the task of parsing what was meant as opposed to what was said was an immensely wearying task, not because it was difficult, but because it is not a pleasant thing to live one’s life with such a critical spirit for that length of time, and it certainly wore on me. Few people, and I am not one of them, can retain our good cheer and our love and concern and respect and kindness for one’s fellow man when we are feeding ourselves with skepticism and hostility about someone’s motives and character, whether it is deserved or not deserved by the person in question.
In our society, and in countries around the world, there are rampant problems with code language being forced on people to avoid sanctions such as problems with lawsuits, problems with police or soldiers, as well as having the ability to live and work peaceably. Whether we call this the language of civility or political correctness (and it is not strictly a partisan matter, as it can be forced from either the right or the left, depending on who has control or desires control of public language in a given area or institution), it usually forces people to avoid speaking obvious truths and shading their meaning considerably to speak more politely in order to avoid very unpleasant sanctions. When people let slip what they really think and feel in an atmosphere where openness and honesty is not tolerated or respected, the results can be deeply unsettling, as one can see from the treatment that is meted out to anyone who is judged as racist or sexist or otherwise intolerant of protected minorities who happens to be in the public eye in some countries, and anyone who speaks out against corrupt rulers and authorities in other countries.
There are upsides and downsides to just about every quality we may have as people. Those who are secretive and subtle may be able to survive very well in dark times because they hold their counsel close to them and do not betray their feelings and thoughts with an indiscreet word or action, but such people are also frequently mistrusted because they act as if they have something to hide (and all too often they do). At other times people who are openhearted, candid, and sincere may speak perhaps too much for others to be at ease because there are some things that ought to be spoken and some things about which we ought to keep silent, and someone who speaks too much and too openly will be seen and judged an open enemy of both those who are fearful and timid (who really ought to be comforted and encouraged rather than attacked) as well as those who are corrupt and wicked and who deserve to have their deeds brought into the harsh light of day. While we live on a wicked and rebellious and fallen world, we will always struggle to find the right balance, and always struggle to bring our actions in line with our beliefs. But it is worth the effort.