One of the few redeeming elements of a contentious election year is the amount of propaganda that is produced for my communication students to analyze in class. Each day fresh nonsense is manufactured to persuade the citizens of our country to vote one way or the other. Manipulated video footage, media framing and a host of propaganda techniques are sent out via social media, email, or commercials that interrupt the precious few minutes of escape we have on YouTube.
Propaganda and persuasion techniques are legion, but one that has been particularly effective the past couple years is known as “verbal compulsion.” Verbal compulsion occurs when an organization or individual’s phraseology is acquired by their audience and used everywhere with religious devotion. It can range from Nike’s classic motto “Just Do it” to campaign slogans like “Make America Great Again” or “Our Best Days Still Lie Ahead.” Verbal compulsions occur around social issues, as evidenced by any of the “[Fill in the blank] Lives Matter.”
I have nothing against snappy sayings to help an audience become aware of an issue, product or spiritual truth. Part of being an excellent communicator is having people adopt your language. The challenge is when we become compulsive in our interactions with each other in a way that destroys interpersonal communication.
When someone posts or speaks about a personal experience or offers a carefully worded reflection on the state of things, it is inevitable that verbal looters will show up and hijack whatever is being said with aphorisms that are more about themselves than what the person is trying to communicate.
Many of us can testify to how discussion threads on social media take bizarre turns when someone shows up with a verbal compulsion and takes the conversation places it was not intended to go. By the time the arguments end, people’s relationships are strained, feelings are hurt, and trust is damaged. We need to do better than this if we are going to survive a media landscape designed to reduce complex issues into aphorisms to use against each other.
When teaching on the side of discipleship, Jesus tells His people to think ahead and count the cost. “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish’” (Luke 14:28-30, NIV).
Continuing to make His point, Christ says, “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace” (31-38). What if part of the cost of discipleship is thinking ahead before we speak instead of succumbing to verbal compulsions?
Disciples count the cost of their actions. They reflect on whether or not what they set out to do will bring glory to Jesus or lead to personal ruin. They ask, “What do I hope to accomplish by saying/posting this?”
Imagine if believers had different kinds of verbal compulsions—ones rooted in the command to love our neighbors, even our enemies? Instead of being compulsively condescending, our compulsions should sound like Tell me more, Can you recommend reading on this? or Thank you for being vulnerable. As long as it isn’t said condescendingly, even Have you considered … ?
What if our default wasn’t to flood the pool of meaning with self-righteous zingers, but rather sincere questions seeking to understand? What if we had verbal compulsions for Christ?