We live in an age of “cultivated uncertainty” in many aspects of our culture. Many seem almost proud of the fact that they are uncertain of things for this makes them seem to themselves (an they hope to others) to be “open-minded” and “tolerant.” Tolerance of course is one of the only virtues left in many people’s world. To say that there is a truth and that you can come to know it articulate it seems “arrogant” to many. How dare a person really claim to know things better than anyone else. It is better to be a “seeker.” It is better to “live the question” rather than pretend that you have an answer or that there really are any answers. These are the “virtues” of relativism.
A lot of this relativism has seeped even into the way we talk. Consider a few examples:
There is an annoying expression that often occurs between people who see things differently. It comes up a lot in interviews on television and radio. The reporter or interviewer will often say, “Are you suggesting that…..?” For example in a recent interview on the radio I heard a talk show host ask a bishop, “Are suggesting that politicians who vote to fund abortion are not loyal Catholics?” The irritable part of me wants to answer for the Bishop, “I am not only suggesting it I am plainly saying it.” The dynamic of using the word “suggest” implies that the Bishop cannot really speak the truth or know it, he can only “suggest” it. The reporter seems to live in world where nothing is certain, (except that nothing is certain) and thus the Bishop can only “suggest.” This type of interaction seems to occur more in regular conversations at meetings and other interactions as well. It bespeaks an attitude of cultivated uncertainty.
- Another annoying little word that has crept into the vocabulary of many, especially younger people, is the word “like.” As in: “It’s like, y’know annoying?” Or when asked an ordinary question such as “Why didn’t you do your homework?” The answer may come back, “Well, y’know it’s like, I was busy?” At one level the over use of the word “like” is just an annoying and unconcious habit. But it also seems to flow from the climate of cultivated uncertainty. Instead of something being what it actually is, it is “like” something. So instead of the student simply declaring, “I was busy and neglected to do my homework, for which I take responsibility” they say rather, “It was, like, I was busy.” But what does “like being busy” amount to and how does it differ from actually being busy? This habit of using “like” comes from a culture which says “Don’t actually say what you mean, be vague and uncertain. After all nothing is really all that clear. Nothing really is what it is, it’s just like something else. Using “like” also helps a person evade direct responsibility for what they actually do.
- A third example is already on display in number 2 above. It is the tendency to end declarative sentences with an interrogative tone. As in: “It’s like, y’know annoying?” Here too the habit seems to emerge from a culture that doesn’t want to simply say something plain because that means that we actually think that something is so. Thus, instead of saying “Your habit of ending statements as questions is annoying and makes you seem vapid and uncertain” many simply “suggest” it: “It’s like, y’know annoying?” Almost as if to say, “It’s not that I could say it actually IS annoying, that would be arrogant. Rather I just want to suggest that something might be so.”
These habits are wonderfully and comically displayed in the video below (hat tip to Creative Minority Report).
The bottom line is that: I am “suggesting” the cultivated uncertainty of our culture has, like, y’know seeped into our unconscious?” In plainer language, the relativism of our times has gone deep into our minds and effects the very way we talk. Most of these mannerism are unconscious to us. But that is just the point. It illustrates how deeply we have bought into and communicated, especially to the young, that to plainly assert what we know and think to be true is “arrogant.” Instead we should couch our language in more delicate circumlocutions. We suggest instead of say. Things are like something, instead of plainly being that thing. Everything is questionable, so we end statements like they were questions. Speaking plainly is perceived by many as arrogant, as if we actually believed what we were saying!
There is a place for humility and uncertainty but we have adopted it to a fault. It is the voice of relativism echoing through our verbal expression. Many today are vague and uncertain in their speech because our culture wants it that way and sees it as becoming. Jesus says, Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matt 5:37). A modern version of this is “Say what you mean. Mean what you say. But don’t say it mean.”