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The Eighth Commandment - The Most Flouted?

The walls of several front offices in Ghana are good places for some workers to pin their articles of faith or wise sayings.

One particular opinion I recall seeing even as a child, is the drawing of a sublime-looking man whose lips have been clipped together by a padlock. The caption above that image says, “There would be the greatest peace on earth if on every bad mouth a padlock is hung.”

In my childhood I did not particularly know what a bad mouth was. As adults now, we are all well acquainted with what damage tactless or “bad mouths” can cause.

That damage could accrue not only to the peace of one mind, but to the harmonious aspirations of partners, a family, and to communities and nations all around the world.

Although the saying that “Speech is silvern, but silence is golden” comparatively elevates intentionally keeping mute over uttering words, as more effective in making an impact in a particular circumstance, making use of the faculty of verbal communication, externally expressed or not, is, however, practically the most powerful channel for effecting change in any sphere of human control.

This is not surprising because, speech — and its antecedent, rational thought — is scientifically accepted as the most sophisticated attribute of any living organism. And this attribute is peculiar on a consistent basis only to modern man.

In fact, speech and consistent rational thought are the distinctive traits that set mankind apart from the other living organisms.

And because man is the most powerful and viable of all earthly creatures, that distinctive trait of speech, and its usual precursor, reason, should account for all that power mankind possesses.

Indeed, the Creation account of the origin of the universe in Genesis Chapter One has all things — except Man — being brought into being by the mere verbal invocation of God.

And going by that same account, that also, Man was created in the image and likeness of God, it would be clearer to all, the power that Man has the capacity to wield by virtue of the sense of speech.

This means that, Man also can create things, can create things as concrete, vast and mysterious as the Universe – and all that's within it!...

In fact, when Christ came, he taught among other things that, if we abode in his Word, we'd also be able to do all that he did – and even more!

This is the potential power within mankind that the faculty of speech can give vent to.

But because it's the most widely used means of mankind's interaction with each other, the use of the faculty of speech can run into difficulty, creating peace or chaos. And it clearly does so in infinite scenarios around the world on a daily basis.

Thus, peace, being the ultimate desire of every human heart and soul, may continue to remain the most elusive quest of all human activity from time immemorial. With this difficulty, we could well appreciate the power of speech— or the non-use of it—– in the Biblical injunction that, “He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity.” (Proverbs 21:23).

Again, the power of the tongue — at its potent best— is captured in the Book of James (3: 5, 6,8b-9a) thus: “Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.

Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.

It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell…[The tongue] is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men.”

But it is not only Scripture that warns us to keep a tight rein on our tongues. One of the best known axioms of secular wisdom admonishes us to “Think before [we] talk.” Usually, we are so eager to talk that we often forget to ask ourselves:

Who will benefit from what I am going to say? Could somebody's feelings be hurt, or their self-esteem damaged, if I make this comment or observation? Ask yourself these questions and you may save others pain through needlessly hurtful words.

This caution is important because, the spoken word, like a spent arrow, cannot be retrieved or retracted to the original position.

How well can the emotional or psychological wound caused by a hurtful expression be healed? Besides the passage of time, the second-best remedy may be a “scar tissue” with indelible memory.

Yet, how often and habitually don't people eagerly exchange and pass on information about others which may be true or untrue? Or the factuality of which they cannot prove themselves? … This is the pith and substance of gossip.

Gossip in human relations is as common as the word. It is defined as “idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others.”

While gossip does or maybe doesn't form one of the oldest and still the most common means of spreading and sharing facts and views, it also has a reputation for the introduction of errors and other variations into the information thus transmitted.

The term also carries implications that the news so transmitted (usually) has a personal or trivial nature.

Some people commonly understand gossip as meaning the spreading of dust and misinformation, as, for example, through excited discussion of scandals.

 This is usually the case when two or more people gather together in the name of loyal friendship, and, with their mouths, tear to tatters the reputation of another not present.

What is the motivation for this common tendency? Perhaps the answer lies in the “reward” of gossip.

Scientists would agree that, in their primitive make-up as hunters, humans still – consciously or unconsciously – feel good about the misfortune or failure of others.

This explains as: When someone fails or falters, there's one less adversary for the other person(s) to contend with.

This makes the other(s) feel safer in that particular situation – and the resultant feeling is a naturally good one. With the increasing supremacy of human speech over physical force in initiating positive or negative change, however, language now initially does more effectively, what physical strength can legitimately do.

Hence, the evolution has been towards verbal “firing-squad”. Gossip has thus attracted the attention of academia as a fruitful avenue of study, particularly in the light of its relationship to both overt and implicit power structures.

Researchers Turner and Weed, theorise that among the three main types of responders to workplace conflict are attackers who cannot keep their feelings to themselves:

they express their feelings by attacking whatever they can. Attackers are further divided into up-front attackers and behind-the-back attackers.

Turner and Weed, note that the latter "are difficult to handle because the target person is not sure of the source of any criticism, nor even always sure that there is criticism."[Conflict in Organizations: Practical Solutions Any Manager Can Use; Turner, Stephen P. (University of South Florida); Weed, Frank; 1983].

Furthermore, an Internet site has recently put up a theory to the extent that some amount of gossip is not bad socio-morally. In fact, the blog goes further to assert that some indulgence in what has been described as “the vilest vice” is good.

According to the blog, gossip is good because, gossiping suggests that the gossips have some amount of concern or harmless interest in the situation of the people spoken about.

This, they contend, makes gossips “human” and not “aloof”. Applying his fabled wit to the subject, renowned 19th century Irish novelist, poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde, has posited that, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

But how much of idle chat goes too far? How much of gossip is going beyond a “conventional” way of catching up on what's going on?

This is where the Eighth Commandment comes to the rescue; it does so with a balance in one hand and a sword in the other: “Thou Shall Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbour.” (Exodus 20:16).

Here, God is effectively saying: Thou might bear witness, but not FALSE witness. Actually, Christianity condemns all kinds of misrepresentation of facts, or gossip.

The Epistle to the Romans (1:28-32) associates gossips ("backbiters") with a list of sins including sexual immorality and with murder.

The other two Abrahamic religions also consider gossiping a despicable preoccupation. Judaism considers gossip spoken without a constructive purpose as a sin. Speaking negatively about people, even if retelling true facts, counts as sinful, as it demeans the dignity of man — both the speaker and the subject of the gossip.

According to Proverbs 18:8: "The words of a gossip are like choice morsels: they go down to a man's innermost parts."

Islam also, considers backbiting the equivalent of eating the flesh of one's dead brother.

According to Muslims, backbiting harms its victims without offering them any chance of defence, just as dead people cannot defend against their flesh being eaten.

In vintage legislative mode, in Matthew 18, Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ commanded that, conflict resolution among church members should begin with the aggrieved party attempting to resolve their dispute with the offending party alone.

Only if this did not work would the process escalate to the next step, in which other church members would become involved. In no case did Jesus authorise complaining to another church member without having confronted the offender first.

This classic edict of Christ translates beautifully into that cardinal code of conduct that says, “If your speaking will not improve the situation, don't say behind someone what you cannot say before her or him.”

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), wife of the longest-serving US President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and first President of the United Nations Commission for Human Rights, has remarked famously, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people [negatively].”

But I'll conclude that, everyone does some of the three sometime – if even mentally; but what we dwell on most determines who we are ultimately.