“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” A catchy nursery rhyme but a dangerous belief for political leaders. Language matters. Other animals may communicate but only humans have developed language to the point we can engage in international trade and send rockets into space.
One problem we have not solved is completely understanding what someone who speaks a language different from our own truly means. While it is possible someday the whole world will once again speak one language, the last time that was true was three million years ago when all the humans on Earth lived in Africa’s Olduvai Gorge. Somehow we managed to create an actual Tower of Babel (Genesis, 11:1-9) as we clawed our way all over the globe.
Almost everyone has experienced being both misunderstood and misunderstanding others. They hear one thing when we intended something else or we thought they meant something by their words that was not what they intended. If you are married you will not need any specific examples from me. The situation is exacerbated by leaders of foreign countries trying to reach a meeting of the minds while using separate languages.
When I taught other judges from Palestine, Ukraine or Russia the system we used to convey my English language thoughts to the foreign judges was: I would speak, or write, an idea then a translator fluent in both English and Arabic, Ukrainian or Russian would repeat to the foreign judges what I just said or wrote. I could often tell from the reactions of the foreign judges that even with the best-intentioned and diligent translators what I meant often was not exactly what the translator conveyed and/or the audience understood.
If we apply this principle to international relations, say between the United States and North Korea, we and they should probably proceed with extreme caution when we make statements which might unintentionally convey disrespect or challenge.
Perhaps another old childhood saying might be worth keeping in mind as countries deal with one another where either or both could easily misinterpret the other’s true intent: “Be careful what words you spew out to others as you might be eating them later.”
Right now many in our country are using language about North Korea and its leader Kim Jong-un that might make any person fear we are going to attack them. Irrational responses often result when one is placed in fear and doubt about another’s intentions.
Many in our government and in the news media are sounding the war tocsin and claiming Kim Jong-un is dangerously irrational. As for our own leaders much of the media is so offended by President Trump’s criticism of the media that it is in a constant attack mode. For example, this past Sunday edition of The Reno Gazette-Journal devoted three pages to calling the President of the United States a liar. It would not be surprising if North Korea were emboldened to attempt military action due to a false conclusion that Americans are weak and divided.
I am not suggesting the media or anyone else ignore poor decisions or bad policies. Our democracy has lasted over two hundred years in large part because we need not fear to speak out against what we perceive to be ill-advised actions. However, the country chose President Trump. It is much like a spouse who denigrates his or her mate. Whose judgment is flawed?
And when our politicians and media continually describe Kim Jong-un as a dangerous fool he might be misled to believing we are about to launch an attack. Perhaps both countries and their leaders may wish to ratchet back the invective with both keeping in mind another ancient aphorism: “When one is dealing with a fool he should make sure the fool is not similarly engaged”.