To Ease Division, We Must Drop The Loaded Language

Mutual understanding starts with finding a shared vocabulary

We’ve all done it. Used a word or phrase that means something specific for the person to whom we are speaking, but would mean something completely different – or nothing at all – to someone else.

Others may call it jargon, slang, coded language, or even dog-whistling – but even these phrases can hold baggage. So, for the purposes of this article, I want to establish a piece of shared vocabulary: “loaded language,” defined in the paragraph above.

Before we get too far into it, I want to address two things which you may already be shouting at your screen. First: I recognize it is impossible to eliminate loaded language completely. Second: no, this is not “language policing” (another bit of loaded language) – the purpose is very different, as we will see shortly.

 

Why do we use loaded language?

Giving people a broad benefit of the doubt here, I believe these words and phrases are usually well-intentioned. Often, loaded language is created organically to serve one of two purposes: to create a short-hand phrase for a complex idea, or as a way to easily signal agreement with (or belonging to) a certain group. Often, it’s both. 

This process is natural and, in a vacuum, not inherently harmful. The problem arises when we use these words and phrases with people who understand them to mean something very different. It should go without saying that this becomes especially important if we are trying to have constructive conversations with people who hold different beliefs and opinions.

 

Where does Christianity fit into this?

I believe most people, both inside the church and out, would agree that Christianity is one of the most jargon-heavy groups of people around

The term “Christianese” is a widely-used term for the loaded language of the Church and Christians. Most of this language is not harmful or pejorative; it just doesn’t make much sense to those outside the church, and is often criticized for alienating newcomers and outsiders.

The “Christianese” problem is longstanding and difficult to fix; some churches have policies of examining the wording used in their services and their external communications to be simple and clear for the benefit of the uninitiated, and this can be helpful. However, Christianity has developed a much larger problem with loaded language in recent years with the politicizing and polarization of its most controversial issues.

 

Cancel Culture

Perhaps the most significant example of loaded language today is “cancel culture.” Even in the secular world the phrase means different things to different people, but among Christians I have seen a new shared definition emerge that I find especially troubling.

What I have seen in many articles and blog posts in recent months from Christian writers is explanations of cancel culture that focus on roughly the same big idea: that it is a new and growing movement among liberals and progressives whose goal is to vilify Christianity and drive it underground.

The problem here is that virtually no-one outside of Christianity shares this understanding of cancel culture. In fact, I believe that if you asked 10 atheists, liberal or conservative, to define cancel culture, you would likely not hear Christianity or faith mentioned even once. 

The secular view of it still varies from person to person, varying in how broad or specific, how positive or negative, but generally involves publicly exposing “bad” or undesirable behaviour and creating public pressure for consequences. It is the new court of public opinion in a world where social media protects the accusers better than the accused through anonymity of voices.

This is not to say that our Western governments and culture are not being secularized, or that Christian persecution doesn’t exist, or that there isn’t increasing scrutiny of churches and church leaders. These things are real. They just aren’t “cancel culture” – at least, not to the majority of people who are participating in it. If we want to talk about secularization, we should say secularization. If we want to talk about media bias, we should say media bias. But in order to be taken seriously and understood by anyone who doesn’t share the same loaded language, we need to be conscious of how some of these buzzwords might be understood differently.

 

Easing Division

“Cancel culture” is just one of many phrases and words that have become loaded and confusing as our world gets more politically divided. Others that come to mind in a Christian context are “deconstruction,” “progressive,” “fundamentalist,” and even “traditional” – all words that can mean very different things even to someone who shares a Christian faith, even within the same denomination, church or family.

Often when we hear these words used in a context different than we understand them, we will recoil, disengage, or assume things of the person using them. If we want to have constructive conversations and mutual understanding with people across political and religious divides, we need to consider where our language might not overlap, and find clearer ways to express ourselves.

It’s not about “language policing,” avoiding “triggering” someone or being “woke” – it’s just about clear communication. And it goes both ways: we can listen with an open mind for where others might be using language that we understand differently, and we can ask for clarification or describe how we understand what another person is saying. 

Language changes every day, and it’s impossible to eliminate loaded words and phrases entirely. My challenge to you, to myself, to Christian writers, and to everyone is not to hold back our unpopular opinions, but to consider what we really mean when we express them.

In the words of Nina Simone,

“I’m just a soul whose intentions are good,

Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.”

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About the author

Luke Thiessen is the publisher of ChristianWeek.