We need to learn new ways to speak peace, reclaiming words that have been weaponized and beating them into plowshares (2).
In Marilyn McEntyre’s latest book, Speaking Peace in a Climate of Conflict, she gives us a bold and necessary challenge: stepping into a world that is awash in “simplistic partisan rhetoric” and “glib euphemisms” and instead finding “words that comfort” and “sustain courage” (front cover flap, 2).
But McEntyre does not just issue this challenge and then leave us to it. Instead, she exhibits the same care for the reader I imagine she does for her students, equipping us with the tools we’ll need along the way. These tools come in the shape of chapters on topics about unmasking euphemisms, embracing our allusive impulses, telling it “slant,” articulating our outrage, finding and checking facts, minding our metaphors, laughing when we can, and perhaps most importantly, resisting the urge to always “win.”
In these chapters, she has identified
“a number of strategies for maintaining clarity, integrity, and authenticity in the midst of morass, drawing examples from contemporary writers and speakers, stewards of words, from whom we can all learn. It is a time to be, as they are, deft and strategic, subversive, surprising, amusing, able to offer the occasional ‘shock of recognition’ that reminds and reawakens” (3).
In the first chapter, “Don’t Rely on Webster’s,” McEntyre reminds us that words are fluid, with rich and dynamic histories, and we should attune ourselves to the “color and weight” of the words we choose, and “hold one another accountable for the meanings we make” (8). She continues,
“Disconnecting words from their histories is dangerous. It hollows them out, leaving them gutted like fish — edible, perhaps, but no longer beautiful, sunlit, and alive. Words naturally evolve and change, but that process is quite different from wrenching them out of historical context and whittling them into commercial slogans, or trimming away theological and cultural associations and turning them into behavioral triggers” (10).
We can all do this, says McEntyre, simply by pausing and asking ourselves and each other, “What do I mean by that?” “What does he or she mean?” “What do you mean?” (16).
In Chapter 5, “Telling It ‘Slant,’” McEntyre clarifies that slant “is not the same as bias. Telling truth ‘slant’ is a way of enabling others to hear it” (73). She reminds us to choose our words wisely, keeping in mind the needs and particular sensitivities of the audience we are hoping to reach. “We have to reckon with the fact that no word choice is neutral; sometimes a single word can awaken or alienate or stop hearers in their tracks” (75). By “telling it slant,” she says, we can “bypass defenses and find [our] way into the risky intimacy that honest confrontation requires” (76).
Each chapter concludes with words or writers McEntyre asks us to reflect on. Words and phrases whose meanings have been altered or expanded or simplified or hidden to suit ulterior motives, like “war,” “freedom,” “detention,” “electronic persons,” and “pro and con.” Writers who remind us of what we need to know, or who ask big questions “slant” so we can hear, like Wendell Berry, Arundhati Roy, Mary Oliver, Toni Morrison, and Nadia Bolz-Weber; poets who are peacemakers, healers, and witnesses like Audre Lorde, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Li-Young Lee; courageous leaders who have articulated outrage like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, and Sherman Alexie; “wordsmiths whose gift for life-affirming laughter is worth enjoying and emulating” like Brian Doyle, Anne Lamott, and David James Duncan (164). This is one of my favorite aspects of McEntyre’s books: the invitation to share in the comfort of beloved writers, to discover new favorites, and to sit with familiar words and savor them in new ways.
In her final chapter, McEntyre gives her most difficult challenge yet: “Quit Trying to ‘Win.” She states, “We need to speak courageously, but also strategically, generously imagining those whose views oppose our own — what concerns them, what frightens them, what may have led them to the position they take” (170). She reminds us of the power of story to capture the imagination and change hearts:
“We are, I think, most often persuaded by story, which is why so much of the world’s wisdom literature takes that form. Good teaching tales don’t corner you into agreeing but invite you into a new landscape where you can see things from a vantage point you might never have achieved without them. They work by paradox and surprise rather than by rational argument or presentation of empirical evidence” (171).
“When you don’t feel the need to win, you’re free to play,” she says. “You’re free to pause and ponder and meander a little and reflect and invite and engage” (172-173). She encourages us to temper our desire to argue with the “glib or willfully ignorant,” “not out of fear, but in hope of finding a way into conversation that offers inviting alternatives to confrontation” (173).
These are not easy challenges McEntyre has laid out in this brief book, and they are not to be taken lightly. But it is imperative that we press forward though the fear and difficulty, bringing “what we have and what we can, given our time, energy competing commitments, particular gifts, histories, limitations, and passions, trying to be obedient to our calling” (180).
Alisa Williams is managing editor of SpectrumMagazine.org. This review was originally published by The Englewood Review of Books and is reprinted here with permission.
Book cover image courtesy of Eerdmans Publishing.
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