When I was young I wanted a secret language; one that my sister and I, or maybe a handful of friends, could comprehend. We could talk about anything we wanted in this language: school, turtles, our hopes and dreams, and other people we liked or disliked. But mostly I wanted a secret language because it set me apart. I’d be able to speak English just fine to those outside my Secret Language circle, and they would be impressed and awed by my abilities. I’d have something they didn’t have.
So I picked up a book of Native American sign language and tried to teach it to my sister, and to Jennifer Hull, the only two who were even a little bit interested in my fancies. That little experiment lasted about 2 weeks. You can only say “three arrows, plateau, warriors” so many times before you’ve exhausted your chances at meaningful conversation.
When I went to college, I slowly got my wish. Although the language was still English, I learned a LOT of words: some of them allowed me to talk about concepts in theology or philosophy. Some were names (I wrote a music history paper on Karl Ditters Von Dittersdorf, for godsake). Each nugget of information I learned was proudly squirreled away into my wordhoard. And I built my secret language. I could share with my friends, and wall out those I would rather not talk with.
I was warned against this in my Theology I class. We were all required to read a thin tract called “A Little Exercise for Young Theologians.” It was by a guy called Helmut Thielicke, a 20th century German academic. I didn’t like the book at first, because Dr. Thielicke (that’s NOT pronounced “Helmet Thigh Licky”, by the way) spoke in a secret language. He talked of words I didn’t know, like kerygma, and used names I’d never heard of, like Rudolf Bultmann. It wasn’t fair. It was only 30 pages long, and I couldn’t understand it.
But Dr. Bobo, my theology professor, tested us on its content so I was forced to slog through the thing. “I hated it,” I proudly announced to all my friends, “because it’s dumb.” But that’s not the real reason. The real reason was its secret language. How dare that egghead speak to me, from his ivory tower, incanting his special words and secret names, and telling me what to think?
Well, needless to say, the contents of book stuck with me. I eventually understood almost all the terms in there. I read it again this morning in fact.
What he was telling people was this: get out of your ivory towers, and stop using special words and secret names, and start loving people.
When you’re eighteen, you refuse to hear this kind of message. You’re young and zealous, and fresh in college, ready to prove yourself. New concepts grab you by the collar and rattle your teeth. And you’re impressed. “Wow. I never thought of economics that way before. Those Marxists had something to say.”
Then you go home on spring break and your mom says, on the way home from Coos Bay, “I sure like that George Bush. I’m voting for him and not Mike Dukakis. There’s just something about his eyebrows.” And you, in all your infinite wisdom, roll your eyes with all that extra knowledge, and say, “I could never vote for Bush. I mean, his track record in 1972 alone…” and you spew a combination of sneer and eyeroll all over everyone in the car.
I was lucky. I got shouted at early, before the bad habit could take root. “Well, you may think you’re smart, and you are, but I’m not stupid, and I’m voting for who I want in this election.” I shut up, and never said another political word to anyone unless I knew it was safe company.
I’m pretty sure this is the kind of moment Thielicke was talking about.
You go home with a bagful of intellectual treats, and you hand them out like candy. Only the treats are like broccoli stalks. They might be good for you, but they’re not very popular snacks. You can keep the entire bag for yourself. And everyone knows that George Bush hates broccoli.
Thielicke thinks that your brains outpaced your maturity. He called it theological puberty, the process of “getting” the terms and concepts, and names, but not “getting” when or where to use them, nor even why.
When you use your secret language to jab someone, it’s like poking a dog with a stick. It might be funny when the dog jumps in the air but it’s not amusing when the dog cowers away from you forever after, much less when you need to untie him and get your hand bitten. Also, it’s not the dog’s fault. He’s just being a dog. nobody should have started with all that obnoxious stick business
One scholar (Paul Ricoeur, if you care) talks about a second naiveté for people. You walk into college (or a job, or a scripture), not knowing something, and you’re perfectly happy in your ignorance. Then you’re confronted with an issue. Let’s say, for example, the way I laughed at the Guide to Nonsexist Language I was required to use during my first college English composition class. At first I ridiculed it. I wrote an entire paper using “he/she” just to prove how ridiculous I thought the concept of nonsexism was, and how clunky it forced my elegant prose to become. But once I’d wrestled with the guide good and hard, and chewed it over, and determined its value, I began to integrate it into my daily habits. A person might do this meanly, until they’ve matured enough to give the issue context in their own lives. “I can’t believe you use the term mankind, instead of humankind,” I might say disparagingly. You might use your knowledge/pride as a bludgeon to the “unknowing” masses, and when doing this, alienate people.
If you’re lucky, and thoughtful, you reach tha place of “second naiveté,” where you don’t have to bolster your pride with your knowledge and learning. You can live confident in the thought that it’s okay to have the knowledge, but not okay to beat people down with it.
Ever have a guy start a conversation with “as an expert in the #### field I have to tell everyone here that…”?
Yeah. Everyone hates that guy.
Ohhhh how many times I’ve been that guy.
I’d never ever give up my learning or scholarship or reading. It was hard-won. It was also expensive (still paying off school loans). But it was worth it. Despite this, I hope never to beat someone up with my secret languages again.
Not every person may understand fancy terms and ideas, but people certainly understand when they’re being attacked or ridiculed. It’s far more agreeable to make new friends and encourage alliances, than to add a few points to my ego with special words and secret names. And nobody is turned off faster than being force-fed broccoli, when what would really make them happy is a little dessert.