6 min read

Our language use is leading to a cultural abyss

We are witnessing a profound loss of commitment and discernment in the use of language, writes Oliver Wright.

After 15 years as a lawyer in London, Oliver is currently doing a DPhil at the University of Oxford.

Four rugby players stand and watch beside a referee gesturing with his arm.
Rugby players wait upon Wayne Barnes' word.

The 2023 Rugby Union World Cup Final was one of the most iconic international matches in living memory, involving two of the most iconic teams – the All Blacks and the Springboks. It’s not surprising that after reaching such a pinnacle of a sporting career, there should be retirements that followed. But two retirements caught my eye. Not from players, but from referees: Wayne Barnes, the most experienced international referee in the world, the main match official, and Tom Foley, also highly experienced, the Television Match Official. Why? Wayne Barnes’s statement is particularly gracious and thoughtful. But the reason given in common with Tom Foley, and indeed many others in similar situations and similar high-pressure roles in the public eye, is worrying: online abuse. After the cup final, death threats were even sent to the school of Foley’s children.   

Online abuse has become an endemic, worldwide problem. There are real people issuing these threats and abuse; and there are real people receiving them, and responding in some way. Of course, there is also the problem of online ‘bots’. But they only succeed in their abuse because of their imitation of real abusers.  

It’s worth asking why, because we can go beyond the helpless handwringing of ‘the perils of being online’. There are philosophical and indeed theological reasons, and philosophical and theological ways, I suggest, of climbing out of the abyss.   

In fact, all words ‘act’ in some way. Even plain truth-describers assert something, such that an interlocuter can learn or discern for themselves. 

Let’s go back to the 1950s, when two important advances in the philosophy of language and in religious language occurred. The first came from Oxford, and the White’s Professor of Philosophy, J.L. Austin. The second came from Durham, and its then Bishop, Ian Ramsey.  

Austin, whose remarkable life and work has now been brilliantly documented for the first time in the biography by Mark Rowe (published by OUP, 2023) was a decorated Second World War veteran in the intelligence corps who was widely recognised as being one of the masterminds of the success of the D-Day Landings. On his return to Oxford in the late 1940s he perceived with great dissatisfaction a certain philosophical move which accorded the greatest importance in language to words and phrases which described things, which indicated some form of empirical truth about the world. For sure there were other kinds of use of language, religious language, emotional language, and so on, this argument continued. But that was fairly worthless. Describing cold hard scientific truth was the true utility for language.  

Austin’s most famous response was in his book How To Do Things With Words. The function of language goes way beyond the scientific description of the world. Language acts, it does things. We promise, we name, we cajole, we threaten, we apologise, we bet. There is no real ‘truth’ as such conveyed in such ‘speech-acts’. Their importance lies, rather, in what is thereby done, the act initiated by the words themselves. Or, in the Austin-ian jargon, the ‘illocution’ within the ‘locution’.   

But Austin realised something even more important as he investigated this form of language – these performative utterances. In fact, all words ‘act’ in some way. Even plain truth-describers assert something, such that an interlocuter can learn or discern for themselves. What matters is how ‘forceful’ the relevant act of speech is in each case. Sometimes the speech-act is very simple and limited. In other cases, such as threats, the performative aspect of the utterance is most forceful indeed.   

Austin’s student John Searle took the idea of performative language to America, and developed it considerably. Most notable for our purposes, however, over against Austin’s idea, was the separation of speech from act. By analysing the conventions and circumstances which surround the performance of a speech act – a baptism service for instance – we can observe how and why the act occurs, and how and why such an act might go wrong. But the debate was then divorced from the context of speakers themselves performing such actions, an integrity of speaker and action. The philosophical problem we then hit, therefore, is that a spoken word and the associated act (‘locution’ and ‘illocution’) are two entirely separate ‘acts’.  

Let’s move now from Oxford to the great Cathedral city of Durham. At the same time as Austin was teaching in Oxford, the Bishop of Durham Ian Ramsey – apparently unaware of Austin’s new theory of performatives – investigated religious language to try and get to grips with both how religious language does things, and what it says of its speakers and writers. Ramsey developed a two-fold typology for religious language – that of commitment and discernment. First, religious language implies two forms of commitment: there is the speaker/writer’s commitment of communicability, a desire to communicate, to be comprehensible, to ‘commune through language’; and the speaker/writer of religious language also  entertains prior commitments for the language adopted – language is rarely neutral when it comes to religion. Second, religious language implies a form of discernment about the words that are being invoked and for what purpose. They are not universals, but carry special meanings according to the particular conventions involved. Commitment and discernment.  

But this new innovation in the philosophy of religious language too was taken up and developed away from Ramsey’s idea – particularly in the much more famous work of John MacQuarrie, a Scottish philosophical theologian who spent much time teaching both in the States, and in Oxford. In MacQuarrie, writing at the height of the influence of thinkers such as Heidegger and Bultmann, Ramsey’s ‘commitment’ and ‘discernment’ got subsumed into existentialism and myth. The religious speech act became merely an event or an act for the self, a personal matter which might involve transformation, but might not.  

 These two strands, of the philosophy of language as it got taken up by Searle and his American counterparts, and of the philosophy of religious language as it got taken up by MacQuarrie, have for some time now predominated. And it is only recently that scholars on both sides have begun to perform a ressourcement, both on Austin, and on the nature of religious language in the wake of Bultmann.  

 The Twitter-sphere seems irrevocably to have divorced the bonds that tie speaker to their acts. In these fertile conditions, abuse flourishes. 

We can now return to the cases of Wayne Barnes and Tom Foley, and many others in many different walks of life just like them. Undoubtedly, the emotional, existential, and physical distance secured by interacting online has created the conditions for online abuse to flourish. But at a deeper level, what we are witnessing is a profound loss of commitment and discernment in the use of language, in society as a whole and also in the Church. Real people feel free to use language oblivious to any inherent act contained within it. The Twitter-sphere seems irrevocably to have divorced the bonds that tie speaker to their acts. In these fertile conditions, abuse flourishes. Similarly, in the Church, the commitment and discernment which has lain behind millennia of liturgical and doctrinal language has become a private spiritual matter; or indeed has been neglected in public when religious witness has not been matched between word and deed.  

How do we walk back from this cultural abyss? There is an ethical, and, potentially, a religious choice to make. The ethical choice is to think about what our language does to those who read (or hear) it, and to change the way we speak or write, accordingly. Ramsey's modes of ‘commitment’ and ‘discernment’. The religious dimension is to recognise that our words bind us to a system of belief, whether we like it or not. Saying one thing and doing another in a religious context implies a diminution in value of language for all concerned, not just the private life of the individual believer.  

Actions speak louder with words.  

War and peace
3 min read

Letter from Lviv

Loss, resilience, and a hope one day to count blessings not missile intercepts.

Iryna Dobrohorska is Christian Aid’s Country Response Director for Ukraine.

A woman stands at the back of an armoured military vehicle, the door of which is open.
Iryna stands by a displayed military vehicle.

Ukraine is only two years older than I am. My personal history is intertwined with Ukraine’s history. Instead of the carefree fun I should be having as a young Ukrainian woman, on Saturday I was reflecting that my last two years have been dominated by war since Russia began its full-scale invasion. Over those 730 days, I have witnessed the best and worst of humanity.  

I was evacuated from Kyiv to the sounds of explosions nearby, fearing I would be raped or murdered by Russian soldiers if they entered the capital. I’ve wept over losing university friends in combat. I’ve despaired at how Ukrainian writers are being deliberately targeted by the Kremlin.  

But I also observed the speed that we Ukrainians built trust and social connections with unknown people. I was proud of the warmth of my hometown, Lviv, which welcomed people from the east of the country - it crushed the myths that Russia was trying to ooze into our national life that we were a divided country that didn’t have the right to exist except as part of Russia. 

Not just in Lviv but all over Ukraine. This month in Odesa I felt the same warmth extended to elderly displaced people when I hosted a visit to our local humanitarian partner Heritage Ukraine by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. He saw for himself how the team, funded by the Scottish faith charity Blythswood, had opened their doors and their hearts to these traumatised strangers facing an uncertain future. 

One of those displaced people, Nadia, told me: “We want to go home, but our home is being shelled. At least here we stay with dignity.”  

The violence inflicted by Russia is not becoming any easier in the prolonged war we now face.

t’s a scene of resilience I’ve grown accustomed to as I’ve crisscrossed the country to play my small part in the astonishing humanitarian effort powered by the UK public’s incredibly generous donations.  

The Iryna I saw in the mirror in 2021 wouldn’t recognise the young woman I see looking back at me today.  

In Kherson, I was recording the stories of illegal detention of civilians to the sound of artillery fire. In Mykolaiv, my window view was an apartment block with the roof blown off and clay-coloured water was the only drinking option.  

I never thought that I would learn the types of weaponry used in modern warfare. Now I know the difference between the motorbike sound of a drone from the missile whistle above my head followed by the clank when it detonates nearby.  

Security awareness is an everyday reality in Ukraine. We often debate during an alert whether choosing to sleep in our own beds instead of going to a shelter may turn out to be our last night. A six-months pregnant teacher friend of mine in Kyiv was killed in her sleep from a drone strike.  

The violence inflicted by Russia is not becoming any easier in the prolonged war we now face. Yet I also sense the paradox that we’ve accepted the war becoming everyday normality and so has the rest of the world. 

Global attention today is not focused only on Ukraine. A host of other crises are taking precedence in the need for a humanitarian response. My biggest fear is that the long-term nature of our crisis reduces global actors to sympathizing observers.  

What I do know is that my generation of young Ukrainians who have lost so much will not allow that to happen. More than ever, I feel the need for a just and resolute peace for Ukraine. With the help of our international friends, the day will come when those who have suffered can go back to rebuild their homes and communities.  

As I move on to engage further in Ukraine’s recovery efforts, I feel privileged to have worked for Christian Aid as part of the humanitarian response. I’m most proud of our role in being a catalyst for local people to help themselves by setting their own community priorities in the kind of support they need, giving them a sense of dignity and self-worth.  

It’s that kind of world that I dream about - where one day I will count my country’s blessings instead of how many drones and missiles were intercepted the night before.