No one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. – James 3:8
The Latin term ad hominem is used to describe a person who attacks another person when he/she is making a claim rather than address the actual point the other person is making. This is usually done when a person has no substantive way of responding to the other’s point. “You’re stupid for saying that” is a common ad hominem refrain where we attack the person’s intelligence rather than what they’re actually saying. We do this to put the other person on the defensive and deflect attention away from the point he/she is making. This is akin to a magician who doesn’t want us to see how he’s doing a particular trick. He waves a hand high above his head ostentatiously so we’ll look at that hand and not see the other hand that’s doing the trick. It’s deception, but in the magician’s case, it’s done only for our entertainment.
Blessed James has a very low view of human nature and our ability to keep our words from spewing forth “deadly poison.” He concludes that “no one can tame the tongue.” If we’re at all self-reflective and honest, we must admit we’ve all failed to tame our tongues at one time or another. It’s not pretty when it happens. When I look back at the times my tongue was “a restless evil,” it was usually when I was feeling inadequate compared to the other people around me or in some way excluded by them. In a childish, mean-spirited way, I thought I could build myself up by tearing others down. If I could humiliate them with words, then maybe no one would notice my own failings.
Unlike some who argue we’ve entered a coarser, meaner public square in recent times, it seems to me that such coarseness and meanness has always been a part of our currency of communication in the human family. We just hear and see it more often than we used to because we’re so connected through all manner of media. I do agree with those who make such claims that these attacks have gradually become less and less shameful in our culture. And maybe that’s because of how often we now experience them. The “deadly poison” of ad hominem attacks we now regularly witness just drips, drips, drips into our waiting souls and we eventually become inured to them. We may even come to believe that those on the receiving end of such attacks probably have it coming to them.
Enter Donald Trump, who like me when I’ve behaved childishly, thinks he can build himself up by tearing others down. He tries to humiliate other people with the “restless evil” of his tongue so maybe no one will notice his own inadequacy. He called former Texas Governor Rick Perry a “dimwit.” He made fun of Carly Fiorina’s face. He said Senator and former POW John McCain was no war hero. He implied a reporter, Megyn Kelly, was menstruating because she had asked him a difficult question he didn’t want to answer. This is the deceptive behavior of a mean-spirited magician. Like I said, we’ve all engaged in such shameful conduct in our lives, but most of us recognized it for what it was, sought repentance, and then a more gracious path forward. Not Donald Trump. He just continues. I pray we see this magician’s act for what it is and that the “better angels of our nature” not find it the least bit entertaining.