When Viral Communication Goes Bad
Dan Cathy didn’t set out to start controversy. He answered a question from Ken Coleman regarding a previous interview with the Baptist Press’s Allan Blume and, well, you know the rest. “Guilty as charged,” became a rallying cry protest of Cathy, Chick-fil-A, and traditional, conservative marriage values.
But what can all this clucking about a chicken chain teach us about the dark side of human communication? Quite a bit, actually.
Dan Cathy believes he simply stated his opinion (and, by extension, the opinion of his organization) on gay marriage after being asked. As you know by now, a large contingent of the population saw things differently.
That opposition – both Christian and not – has stated the main cause of concern isn’t what Dan Cathy said, but who Chick-fil-A supports as an organization. They claim the restaurant chain financially backs organizations who pursue legal action for making same-sex marriage against the law.
Dan Cathy supporters state that one of the core values of the United States is free speech. Therefore, they assert Cathy should be free to state his beliefs without reproach. “Everyone is entitled to express their opinion!”
The media is constantly filled with people airing their opinions, some truly offensive, some not. But rarely do we see an uproar like we did with Dan Cathy. Where’s the disconnect? Simply put, why are so many people so mad? Why the uproar?
Here’s a shocker: our words carry weight. They possess oomph, whether we intend them to or not. There’s even a fancy name for this weight-carrying-words phenomenon: the Speech-Act Theory. Proverbs says, “Life and death is in the power of the tongue.” Speech-Act says, “By saying something, we do something.”
For example, when two people stand before an altar and declare before the eyes of God and others, “I do,” their words are actually creating a new reality. One that didn’t exist previously. In this case, a marriage.
The words “I do” are impregnated with meaning. They have the power to bind two people together for life, spiritually, emotionally, and physically. “I do” represents something much more significant than an answer to a question.
In our situation, Dan Cathy thinks he is answering a question about his beliefs. But, whether he intended to or not, by “saying something” he’s “doing something”. His words created a reality that he now must deal with. The interviews in question don’t specifically address the financial backing concerns people have, but his words left a paper trail. People followed it and protests ensued.
Think of it this way. Middle-aged parents all over the country are packing up the minivan one last time and taking their kids to college. Mom and Dad have nurtured and cared for their kids, but now it’s time to set them free.
These children, once under the care and responsibility of their parents, now possess the ability to “create reality” independently. They make choices and decisions in ways they’ve never had to previously. The consequences these children face are now a direct result of their own actions, not their parents. This is both intoxicating and terrifying.
Speech-Act theory works the same way. The words we speak become our “children” – complete with the ability to operate under their own volition. We have some measure of influence over them while they’re under our roof (i.e., “context”), but once they’re out of the house, they are free to do as they please. If you’ve “raised” them properly (i.e., spoken with unmistakable clarity), your “children” will bear your image well.
If you’ve neglected your words, well, let’s just say there will be a lot of heartache. Any parent with a wayward child, regardless of age, knows exactly what I’m talking about. (Sometimes, no matter how well they are raised, children turn out poorly. There’s a lesson in there somewhere. For another time, maybe.)
Dan Cathy never intended for his words to become viral fodder. But they did. Why? Because those words (ie, “children”) had a power-packed self-contained meaning that the hearer interpreted for his or herself. In other words, the kids went to college, got drunk at a frat party, and puked on the President’s lawn. Oops.
Clear communication is more art than science, so we’ll blow it more than a few times. We’ll use insider language on our church website, interpret a Scripture passage incorrectly, or say something flat out offensive. (All things I have done, by the way.) Plainly, we’ll ignore the fact that by saying something, we do something.
It’s said the US government agents who deal with national online security work under the assumption that their systems have already been compromised. In other words, they work as though they’ve been hacked. Similarly, assume everything you say as a pastor, preacher, or leader will be taken out of context. Your goal is to speak with such tenderness, love, and clarity of purpose that your words transcend context. It’s hard to misunderstand, “God is love.” Isn’t it?
Dan Cathy never stood in front of a congregation and preached a sermon. But his words, for some people, were the first exposure they’ve ever had to someone who follows Jesus. He has to answer this question for himself: “Was stating my beliefs in the way I shared them, and in such a public manner, worth it?”
As Christians, we must be painfully aware that by “saying something” we’re “doing something.” Our words carry an immense amount of weight.
That doesn’t mean we never express our opinion, state our beliefs, or make a statement otherwise. It does mean we carefully measure, weigh, and think through the words we choose. Our words have a way of taking on a life of their own. We need to ensure that “life” is one worth living.