Thinking in soundbytes; Thinking things through

When a society replaces discourse and sound thinking with catch phrases and slogans, there's a problem.

I recently told you about the partnership between Office Depot and Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" foundation. The retailer is selling "kindness sticks," Sharpie pens, and "bravery bracelets" festooned with slogans such as "Be Brave," "Be Amazing," "Be Yourself," "Be Kind," "Be Accepting," and "Be Involved."

Apparently the purpose of these engraved knickknacks is to get people talking and make them "part of this message that will change everything."

Well, it's easy to laugh at this kind of rhetoric and frankly, I'd be concerned if you didn't chuckle.

But it's not enough just to laugh.  That's because these bracelets displayed on Office Depot shelves are part of a larger trend, one that even we Christians are not exempt from.

That trend is to speak in soundbytes and to substitute slogans for actual discourse and the thinking that discourse requires.

In this case, people are told to "Be Brave" in lieu of contemplating what it even means to be brave.  While no one objects to being brave, how many of us can honestly describe ourselves that way? Much the same can be said about "Be Kind." What is kindness? What does it require? How do I measure up? This is the stuff of the examined life, not bracelets.

Notions such as "Be Amazing" and "Be Yourself" are at best empty rhetoric. Other people should be the judge of whether you are "amazing." And proclaiming yourself "amazing" is the stuff of narcissism, not worthwhile change.

The antidote to empty soundbytes is not more empty soundbytes, although that is often our response. It's not enough or even helpful to counter Lady Gaga's provocations and Office Depot's cravenness by lobbing back our own catch phrases, like "traditional morality." Not because Christians don't support traditional morality or hold it in high esteem, but because, in this context, the phrase has become just another soundbyte.

Instead, we should and must take our cue from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or more to the point, from his father, Karl Bonhoeffer. As I wrote in my biography of Bonhoeffer, the spiritual and intellectual atmosphere in the Bonhoeffer home challenged fuzzy thinking. Karl Bonhoeffer strongly disliked clichés, and was no more tolerant of sloppy expression than he was of self-pity, selfishness or boastful pride.

The Bonhoeffer children, including Dietrich, were taught to speak only when they had thought things through and actually had something to say. Think about that!

To our postmodern ears this may sound like the stuff of a "repressed" childhood. On the contrary, Dietrich's brother, Karl, wrote about wanting his own children to inherit his father's "simplicity and truthfulness." He admired his father's enmity of "everything faddish and unnatural."

The habits of mind and speech that Dietrich learned from his father, coupled with the piety modeled by his mother, prepared him in his crusade against Nazi tyranny. He was wired, so to speak, to see through and to expose the Nazi lies, rhetoric, and soundbytes that enthralled many of his fellow Germans.

Like Bonhoeffer, we can make a dent in our culture by moving discourse beyond soundbytes and clichés. And we can help folks realize that the examined life, which is the only one worth living, cannot be reduced to a slogan on a bracelet.


Eric Metaxas is currently the voice of Breakpoint, a radio commentary (www.breakpoint.org) that is broadcast on 400 stations with an audience of eight million.

Published, August 2012
Copyright© 2012 Prison Fellowship Ministries
Reprinted with permission
BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries

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