It doesn’t take much to divide people; a wrong word or a misunderstanding can quickly create a relational barrier. Perhaps so-called offensive words or misunderstandings are symptomatic of much deeper issues finding an available path to come out.
People with deep hurt and brooding anger will often find release for their anger in causes that would otherwise be less dangerous spaces. Perhaps the whole Brexit affair would have been far less of a battleground if there were not already deep social hurts below the surface.
Words, of course, can never be offensive – it’s only their perceived meaning that makes them so. Words uttered even in kindness can sometimes be received as offensive. So what’s going on?
At the root of it are relationships. When I joined the BBC as a trainee 40 years ago (I’m old), I was taught about the importance of building a relationship with the audience. It’s important to know who you are speaking with (not “to” but “with”)and to be able to build dialogue. The term broadcasting is an unhelpful and antiquated word – what all “broadcasters” do is find a relationship with their listeners. Sometimes “broadcasters” talk directly to listeners on their programmes, at other times they might address their style and language to an imaginary model listener.
What I am trying to say is that relationships and communication can’t be separated. If there isn’t a connection with the audience there will be relevance, language and understanding gaps. (This also applies to products, services, decisions or other public activity that is applied without a basis of relationship with the recipient or beneficiary.)
As I said at the start, it’s not words that are offensive, it’s what we believe them to mean that is the problem. Within the context of a healthy relationship, we can use words much more confidently and even make mistakes in their usage without causing offence. Misunderstanding can be corrected with patience and we will find a much deeper listening and learning experience – if there is a foundational relationship.
I work with the Church of England and we are engaged in promoting models for good conversation between people of different cultures and life experiences. This is important for the church because without the capacity to build relationships out in our communities it will never be able to share thoughts and ideas about faith. The church will be dead in a generation or two if it simply tries to preach or broadcast to people with whom it has no meaningful relationship.
The bridges of friendship forged by the generosity and compassion (ofter through social action and volunteering) are a means of setting these outward-facing relationships in place. Only when we know and love our neighbours can we cease to be broadcasters and become communicators. Communities and church are transformed together in the relationship, for better or worse.