Vail Daily column: Spice speech with a salty tang?
Sick of political slurs? Offended by presidential contenders’ blistering attacks, sullying each other’s reputations?
What vintage Popeye the Sailor’s cartoons called “salty talk” will continue until the presidential election day. The Wall Street Journal reports “the exchange of biting assaults from the two most unpopular presidential nominees since polling began made plain that the fall campaign is unlikely to be fought over policy or programs. Rather, both sides appear intent to persuade the voters the alternative is simply unfit for office” (“Candidates Ramp Up Intensity of Attacks,” Aug. 26, 2016).
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton sound as if they’re deaf to biblical instruction. “Let your speech,” declares the Apostle Paul, “always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6).
Trump sounds raunchy, inferring what’s below the belt rivals his large hand-size. Using the nickname “Pocahontas” for Elizabeth Warren, he denigrates her Native American heritage claim. The Donald salts his attacks, exposing “Lyin’ Ted Cruz.” He snarls at his opponent, lashing out at “Crooked Hillary.”
Trump’s retorts encourage supporters who are intoxicated by his outbursts that ridicule what’s politically correct. Trump’s uncouth slams, mixed with ignorance about foreign policy, don’t upset his voting base. They endorse insulting opponents. Put-downs are considered funny or clever. Violent threats are what real guys shout. Trump’s shock-jock verbal swagger keeps him from backing down. He’s proud of “sticking to his guns, no matter what.”
In biblical times, salty talk consisted of cultivating decent conversation, not slamming adversaries. Then the art of spicing conversation with salty metaphors meant that a speaker mastered precise language and respected those with whom he or she differed.
Salt was precious in biblical culture. Today, our conversation evokes salts worth long ago. We spice what’s said with language that’s not spiteful, unkind or derogatory.
“Salary” is derived from the Latin root for “salt” because Roman soldiers salted away their pay to buy some of this spice. We commend salt of the earth people who are dependable and kind. If a coin collection is worth its salt, then you know the hobbyist owns rare and pricey money.
Donald Trump’s 1950s verbal twin, Wisconsin’s Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, erupted with accusatory barbs when he tried to rid the U.S. of “communist sympathizers.” He insinuated our military had a Russian heart hidden under its red-white-and-blue colors.
McCarthy, with his swarthy complexion, know-it-all sneer and oafish conduct, offended Joseph N. Welch (1890-1960), chief counsel for the U.S. Army. On June 9, 1954, at McCarthy’s congressional hearings, the self-righteous Republican senator led a crusade to exterminate communist sympathizers. Welch called him out for harsh condemnations that crossed bounds of decorum and fairness.
“At long last, have you no sense of decency?” asked Welch, who glared at McCarthy. This salient question, worth its weight in salt, toppled McCarthy’s power and crippled his Red-baiting witchhunt.
Does Trump lack presidential communication skills? Does he sound like a Wrestle Mania brawler, instead?
In contrast, the grandson of Thomas Jefferson described his grandfather’s conversational technique: “If anyone expressed a decided opinion differing from his own,” TJ “made no reply, but changed the subject.”
Nasty arguments seldom change opponents’ convictions. They make adversaries angrier. Cruel retorts wound enraged listeners. Jefferson rejected verbal bullying as a waste of time.
He modeled decent conversation at Monticello’s dinner table, sending ripples of goodwill around the room.
“Jefferson imagined Monticello to be a place where the ‘natural aristocrat,’ the living embodiment of civilization’s progress, would hold court, showing how enlightened republicans [well-spoken, mannerly citizens] could overcome their barbarous natures and transcend conflict” (Most Blessed of the Patriarch’s: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of Imagination by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf, 2016).
Replace mean politics by restoring manners. “Mean” covers two definitions: “nasty” and “run-of-the mill.” Trump fits both definitions of “mean” — he insults and sounds brutish.
Listen to Judith Martin, also known as Miss Manners in the 1980s, who wrote about using words that cultivate friendships. Well-bred and well-spoken citizens show “… respect for the individual,” wrote Martin, “regardless of his or her origin. Good manners in America are about helping strangers. They’re also about judging people on their qualities rather than on their backgrounds. These are principles worked out by our Founding Fathers to assure the dignity of the individual and to keep society nonhierarchical.”
Support political candidates who salt speech with conversation that respects differing opinions rather than resorting to verbal cheap shots to get votes.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.