I met with a group of friends, who meet monthly to discuss the emerging church. Last night we spoke about politics and faith, two taboo subjects for most folk. There are two main ways in which humans have tended to exercise control over other human beings, which impinge upon our topic last night: politics and faith. There are other ways in which humans have had power over others such as fear and violent force, although words and language very well may be the most fundamental means of control from which the others proceed. However, this article is related to our discussion last night and therefore will only touch upon two very influential means of control.
The first, I believe is wealth. Money is powerful and the greed that we all suffer from to some extent only bolster this powerful force utilized to control. The terms “money” and “wealth” are used here as interchangeable, because, although possessions, wealth, money are all different words, they offer us equal opportunity for greed and therefore fit into this perspective of power. This one is not a hard sell because one only has to crack open the history books to find it sufficiently established as fact. Indeed Americans need only to read the newspaper and our current crisis adequately demonstrates this reality presently.
The other one which is equally powerful, if not more at times, is language: words. This use of language is put forth by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, who suggested that our constructions of reality (which are framed in language) are not reflections of what actually are, but are constructions that are utilized to control people, or as he would put it to exercise “will to power”. This is apparent in most areas of our societies, religious, political, business, educational etc. In each of these places, language is used and meaning is assigned to those words. The power element comes in through the assigning of meaning, through defining what the referent of a word is or what concept it points to. The people who control language and meaning, control the people who acquiesce to the meanings of those words.
For instance, in our country right now with presidential politics abounding, whose terminology will ring true to us, whose definition of what “patriotism” looks like in this current milieu will carry more meaning and therefore exert more influence and ultimately be more powerful?
In a religious context, whose theological system, constructed as it is from presuppositions about what Biblical words mean and how they are to be understood, holds more sway over people at the core of their religious belief? Many can’t even see that these beliefs are constructions but are, for them, assumed to be absolute truth. Other perspectives are easily tossed out because the use of language doesn’t reflect the usage and the referent that has been a part of one’s believing and is therefore discounted. And its not as if there is the possibility that any collection of symbols actually arrives at delivering the very essence (metaphysical) of the thing described. Yet the words we use, the understanding we have of that to which they point, in a religious sense, hold sway over many many people.
And in this reality of words, there are those who are accepted as authorized to speak and define in each of those cultural sub-groups, as Michel Foucault points our in his article “What Is an Author”? So within that sub-group, there are people whose words are taken more seriously and more definitively. These people hold power over those who read them, those who believe them, who trust in their ability to define accurately and positively the words that they are using, while others who utilize the same words, assigning different or nuanced meaning are discredited. (Such circumstances are not only troubling, but the truth that often remains out of sight for many interpreters is that in any language transference the legitimate reality is that part of meaning in language does not reside with the author but comes from the reader.)
Pay attention to the rest of the political season in our country, listen to the candidates wrangle over the same words, listen to the religious “Authorized speakers” comment on how one candidate or party is more
“biblical” and thereby seek to influence. Listen closely at the next “religious” discussion and see if the reality of the disagreement doesn’t come down to words and meaning, understood differently and therefore one will attempt to convert the other to their perspective. Watch commercials on t.v. and see how the business sector seeks to define words and apply meaning in a way that will benefit them financially.
Now what I am not saying is that there is a way to escape this use of language, there is not. Language is the fabric of our world and therefore is powerful, especially in our information age. But we could all be a little more aware that our language usage, our referents, and our belief structures do not necessarily portray “reality,” they must be seen as more tentative than that, more descriptive and less exact. Then once we know this about ourselves, we can remember that when we hear someone speak, read someone’s writing, and hold the perspectives offered in that language as an interpretation of what they understand and therefore not necessarily fact.