October 17, 2011

For the past 33 years, I have had the great privilege of being a print journalist. At almost every newspaper where I have worked, I've had the responsibility of writing editorials, columns or other opinion pieces.

This responsibility carries with it the opportunity of forming the public mind for good or evil. I still look back with sorrow on those occasions when I used that opportunity and my own gifts for stinging criticism of others.

You can think you're as clever as a whip and win the applause of your peers when you deliver a tellingly accurate but uncharitable destruction of some public figure. The law in Canada prohibits libel, but leaves a huge scope for nastiness.

When St. Francis de Sales was chosen as the patron saint of writers, journalists and the Catholic press, it was more, I believe, for his success in using the written word to evangelize than for his counsels on using language with gentleness and charity. But that designation might well have instead been for his recommendations on how to use language. Journalists and many others could learn much from pondering the counsels of this most gentle of saints.

More sins, it must be said, are committed with the tongue than with the fist. Moreover, those sins are not always committed in anger. Sometimes, they are committed in a calculated, nasty way, spawned by jealousy. Often they are committed by those trying to be provocative or funny.

Francis de Sales lauds what he calls the virtue of eutrapelia - "good-humoured, joking words, spoken by way of honest and innocent merriment." There is, however, a line between friendly enjoyment at amusing situations and laughing at another person. "Scoffing arouses laughter by way of scorn and contempt of our neighbour."

Slander spoken in a joking way is crueller than any other form, the saint writes. "Slander that might by itself pass lightly in one ear and out the other, as we say, sticks in the hearers' ears when it is expressed in some subtle, funny story."


How we use words tells more about us than virtually anything else we do, Francis writes. "Physicians learn about a person's health by looking at his or her tongue and our words are a true indication of the state of our souls."

If you have a clean soul, your speech will be charitable. But I would venture to say the reverse is also true. If you want to be a more loving person, start by cleaning up your words. Speak of others only with charity and never with disrespect and your soul will itself become charitable.

Among Francis' pieces of advice is his counsel: "We should not contradict anyone unless it were either sinful or very harmful to agree with him." If you must disagree, do it "very mildly and carefully so as not to arouse his anger."

It would make for a peaceful world if everyone followed this dictum. However, would it eliminate reasoned debate in our society? What would happen, for example, if members of Parliament only disagreed with government policy that was "either sinful or very harmful"? Question Period might well be silenced.


However, debate would not end. There can be reasoned disagreement over what is very harmful. If such debate were mild and words carefully chosen, not only would there be greater peace, but also better decision-making.

With 200 TV channels, many "personalities" feel they must scream to be noticed. Our culture is increasingly marked by histrionics and attention-getting behaviour. Millions of people are willing to listen to the most arrogant and egotistical forms of histrionics.

If everyone were calm and reasonable, TV viewership might well decline. Not only that, but the behaviour that TV models for society - from violence to infidelity - might also go into decline.


St. Francis de Sales says the devout person avoids rash judgments. Once we start judging others hurriedly and with a jaundiced eye, soon everything appears to be infected with evil. When we make charitable judgments about others and their intentions, the world appears in a different light.

Francis' counsels are perhaps too sanguine regarding the existence of evil. The evil present in situations such as Darfur, the Rwanda genocide and Srebrenica would not go away by us speaking well of others. Voices are needed that name and challenge such evil clearly and courageously.

It is a sorrowful paradox that in our world, such evils do not receive enough challenge while we too often use our tongues to harm those who are closest to us. Our voices can expose and denounce evil; they can also smooth waters that are unnecessarily troubled. It takes discernment to know the difference.