Ah, sweet irenicism. Why would anyone want to pick a side when we can all just live in peace together?
Because peace comes through resolution and reconciliation. Passive-aggressive behavior only increases division and bitterness. I believe that Americans have lost, after the Baby Boomer break with our fathers, the ability to have resolution and reconciliation through frankness, conflict, and forgiveness.
Instead, ours is a society of passive one-upmanship in which the game is to get the other person to misstep and show that he is the one being mean and unkind. Once someone has been exposed in that way he must back down, humiliated. Because of this, conflict almost never happens. We usually see where our position will become untenable within the culture of tolerance, evaluate where our enemies stand on the same scale, then decide to back out if it seems that we might be shown to be unkind. The paramount goal of our verbal manouverings is to be the one who takes offense.
The best way to gain standing in a society like this is to constantly be bringing “tolerance” into focus, to make it appear as if there is hatred and anger and unforgiveness all around you while you stand in the storm as a rock of moderation.
This is so ingrained in us that, even if we are not always actively playing the game I described above, it shapes how we speak.
Am I talking about the business world? or academia?
No, mes amis. I’m talking about regular old life in society. I’m talking about community. I’m talking about the Church.
Take this sign, for example, versions of which have been flying around Pinterest for weeks (yes, I dig Pinterest, here’s my profile). And if you’re someone who has posted this or even used this in her wedding, don’t be offended. I see the cuteness of it. But maybe consider the assumptions behind such a sign.
You didn’t come to this wedding with some sort of cruel agenda to be divisive by sitting with your friend’s family, did you? Didn’t think so. So pick a seat. Any seat. ANY SEAT!
Forget the built-in traditions of a wedding which have the families divided before the giving of rings, then generally mixed afterwards. You know, making two families one. You might have a better idea for the liturgy of marriage, or simply one you prefer for yourself. There’s no reason your wedding has to be just like grandma’s. But consider what a sign like this says.
Its very phrasing is manipulative. It’s an example of how the way we speak has become passive-aggressive; we’re always phrasing things divisively, paralyzing those who disagree but wish not to offend.
Christians should be all about positive phrasing. Unfortunately we’ve lost the ability to phrase things positively because saying “yes” or “it is so” is too strong. Saying “no” or “maybe” leaves us wiggle room.
This sign could have said, “Today, two families become one. Sit anywhere!” Instead, it phrases negatively. These are the effects:
- It proclaims that the people having this wedding are better than other people who don’t do this at theirs.
- It suggests that those who seat families separately are not as loving as they should be.
- It offends every little old lady who comes to the wedding, making her ask herself questions such as “Do they think I’m some kind of asshole?” and making her feel guilty about wanting to sit with her brother and his family, or maybe near that charming young man her granddaughter married.
Am I making mountain of molehill? Only a bit. It is only that I tire of how we have begun to use language.
Let us be open. Let us be generous. Let us be expansive and liberal and considerate whenever possible. And (here’s my negativity, my prohibition) let’s avoid prohibition. It’s ought not to be “You can’t pick a side”. It ought to be “sit anywhere”.
Let’s be rid of the hipster language that assails us and speak plainly and openly. As in, “This is my party. Please, sit anywhere. Eat anything. Drink anything. Speak to anyone you wish.” And let the Captains of Unity stop being aggrieved and resentful, and get back to their good work.