Poisonous Drifts and Their Antidote

Last night I could not sleep. My usual remedy, trying to make some extra prayer, did not work, and I was too heavy-eyed to read, so I amused myself through the night hours by listening to the BBC World Service’s various attempts to report Mr Trump’s alleged remarks about immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and ‘African countries.’ We were treated to a number of variants, ranging from the the mealy-mouthed ‘vulgarism’ to the more forthright ‘offensive and derogatory language’. In most cases his alleged phrase ‘shit-hole countries’ was quoted. I could not help reflecting that for some the phrase was not in the least shocking, even from the lips of the President of the USA. To others, especially I would imagine those who are from Haiti, etc, it must have been utterly loathsome, indicating a contempt of others that is breath-taking in its complacency and virulence. This morning, predictably, there is a mixture of responses, ranging from synthetic outrage to genuine disgust.

You notice I distinguish between synthetic outrage and genuine disgust. If we habitually use vulgarisms or profanity in our speech, I do not see how we can criticize Mr Trump because we are using very similar thought processes ourselves. We are allowing the poison to drift through our system, so to say, and whether it erupts in a mindless ‘OMG’ or the adjectival use of swear words, it is pretty much the same. Coarse language reflects coarse thinking. In particular, it often reflects hasty judgement or no judgement at all, both of which can lead to unintended consequences, to violence and injustice.

Yesterday Mrs May announced plans to tackle the environmental poisons we are allowing to mar the world. The amount of plastic being dumped in the seas is tragic. The amount of plastic and other rubbish we pick up from the verge outside the monastery is tragic, too. It seems we are reluctant to face up to our responsibilities in the matter unless the law takes a hand and tells us what we may or may not do. The trouble is, when our ideas of right and wrong depend entirely on what is or is not legally permissible, we are giving further scope to the selfishness and contempt for others that is at the heart of both Mr Trump’s attitude to immigrants and our own reckless use of plastic and other environmental poisons.

Today is the feast of St Benet Biscop, about whom I have written often in the past, usually focusing on his love of beauty and his indefatigable labours for the church in England. This morning, however, I am reminded of something else. Benet is credited with introducing the Rule of St Benedict to England, and anyone who follows that Rule knows that an important theme is reverence — reverence for God, reverence for people, reverence for material things. To speak roughly or ungenerously is as alien to the monastic ideal as waste or the wanton destruction of the world about us.

Perhaps we need to do some hard thinking. It is easy to criticize Mr Trump. It gives us a nice glow of moral superiority. It is easy to criticize those who package everything in plastic or who are careless about its disposal. That, too, gives us a nice glow of moral superiority. But what if we were to ask ourselves how far we are complicit, how far we are spreading the poisons we condemn in others? We may pat ourselves on the back that we are impeccably right-thinking, only to fall down when it comes to action. A theoretical love of others has to be translated into genuine welcome and support. A theoretical love of the environment has to be translated into caring for the particular area in which we find ourselves. It means guarding our thought processes, so that it is literally unthinkable that we should hold anyone in contempt or treat our surroundings with anything but respect. That is not easy, and it does not give us any glow of moral satisfaction because it is a task never fully completed. There is always something more to strive for.

What do you think?

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14 thoughts on “Poisonous Drifts and Their Antidote”

  1. As usual you manage to challenge us gently in our thoughts, words and deeds. I will admit to using profanities more regularly than I should, but it is the use of profanities as every other word that is shocking.

    One wishes that people in positions of authority would express themselves more sensitively, especially to those who wish they could improve their conditions but can’t, but it is the synthetic rage which is akin to hypocrisy that really annoys – as it pointing out the splinter in another’s eye whilst ignoring the plank in your own.

    I haven’t done a litter sweep in my area for a while, and must do so again, but found myself half amused and half annoyed when I observed a passenger in a truck with a company name of Something Environmental Services Ltd casually throwing some rubbish out of the window as they passed.

    It is a change of thinking and attitude that is really needed by the general population as well as improving our own practices.

  2. May we ask God to change our hearts and minds and reflect on what we can do to show more reverence to the world He made and gave us. Help us Lord to be more reverent in our language and towards all you have given us.

  3. I don’t usually have an adverse reaction to your excellent blog posts but today I’m afraid something did stick and was hard to swallow.

    It was this “It is easy to criticize Mr Trump. It gives us a nice glow of moral superiority.” There was another similar run of thought as well. I’m not sure why you connect a criticism of ant Trump with a glow of moral superiority. It suggests the two are connected, irrevocably connected.

    I fail to see the connection between the two actions. The very thought of a glow of moral superiority goes so much against the grain that I find tbe idea anathema.

    I could write more but I desist and resist.

    • ? It is linked to my point about synthetic outrage and genuine disguust in the first paragraph. I think most people find Mr Trump’s alleged comments about immigrants objectionable. It is therefore easy to criticize him and feel a glow of moral superiority (synthetic outrage) but I am asking whether we shouldn’t question our own attitudes and see where they fall short (genuine disgust) — a much less comfortable business. I do think you are lucky if you never feel a glow of moral superiority — it is dangerously easy to experience one and needs rapping firmly on the head.

      • In all honesty I don’t think I have ever felt superior morally or otherwise to anyone else. I can say that with an absolutely clear conscience before God. The whole concept is quite alien to me and I have never heard this kind of argument put forward by anyone I know.

        I feel sorry for Donald Trump but I get no pleasure from it or any sense that I am better or superior.

        • That’s wonderful, but I’m afraid many others are affected by it. I find it difficult to believe that you have never heard antyone else condemning vapid virtue signalling, but perhaps certain kinds of hypocrisy are more prevalent in southern England than in your part of Scotland? If not, could I humbly suggest that thinking about the parable of the Tax-collector and the Pharisee would show, better than any words of mine, what I’m on about.

          • I do fully understand the parable and the point you are trying to make is much clearer now that you reference the passage in scripture. Nevertheless I can only repeat that it is not something I have come across. There certainly is a difference perhaps in the kind of Scottish egalitarian culture into which I was born – we are all Jock Tamsin’s bairns is the common watch word of the society I grew up in. That is we are all equal and no one is better than anyone else. Anyway all of this is an aside. Blessings and prayers as always.

  4. If the thinking has been done and in the expression of it coarse language is used for emphasis I do not see that the thinking must have been coarse.
    Language and its use changes and the older generation always complains. My mother and father always complained about people using ‘foul’ language to the extent that my father assaulted two youth on a train who were using swear words in front of my mother.
    It did not stop my parents using the same words against each other in their periodic rows.

    • As you will have gathered, I disagree with you. If the use of coase language/profanity is to shock others, I question whether the person using it has really thought. It is, at best, a sign of intellectual laziness. At worst, it shows a disregard for the other person. It takes effort to try to find the right word, but I think we should. Of course, I speak from the monastic tradition which insists that we should weigh our words carefully and exercise restraint in their use!

  5. I have no honestly informed opinion of the President of the USA but back in the 1970s’ I worked on the “Keep Britain Tidy” campaign . It worked. It wasn’t just the possibility of the fine that enforced it, it was also the respect for our country and countryside. When the IRA were at their worst dustbins disappeared, so did “Keep Britain Tidy”.

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