Let Your Words be Few

Those who are loudest in their threats get what they deserve: nothing but disdain. We freedom devotees who threaten our opponents only strengthen them in their misdeeds, their societal faults. The tactic we should employ? Calmness! Think exclusively of our own improvement and leave faults to the falsifiers. Errors of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free. –Leonard Read

Mark Twain said it best: “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” In fact, the Bible itself often recommends practicing this principle; for example in Proverbs 17:27-28 (“He who restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is considered prudent.”), Ecclesiastes 5:1-2 (“Guard your steps as you go to the house of God and draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know they are doing evil. Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few.”), and James 1:19 (“…everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger…”).

It has often been said that God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason, but living this out on a day-by-day basis takes restraint and deliberateness. It is hard to keep quiet when there is so much ignorance being broadcast to our stereophonic heads. We live in an age where everyone thinks that because they can say something, they must say something. The temptation to speak and expose the ignorance of others is great, but Leonard Read is wise when he tells us: “While it is not dangerous to be honest, this does not mean that one must necessarily divulge all of his innermost thoughts. Many doubtless deserve further incubation.” A factual statement indeed, but Read is by no means recommending silence forever. He continues: “But once a position is taken and expressed, let there be in it no deviation from conscience.” In other words, think before you speak; let your words be few, but let those few be powerful and wise.

As much as I appreciate Leonard Read’s grand advice, I must take issue with one thing he said above, that “it is not dangerous to be honest.” It most certainly is dangerous to be honest; this is why much wisdom is necessary in the first place. Read may have meant that it is not “wrong” or “improper” to be honest, but his choice of “dangerous” seems to me to be rather odd. Danger is a large part of the honesty business. Speaking the truth outright is a noble profession, but it certainly is not free of occupational hazards. One of my favorite examples of the “dangers” of honesty is this Geico commercial about Honest Abe. If you think there wasn’t “danger” involved here, you are obviously not married!

Truth is not highly valued in our day of media spin and distortion. Telling the real truth is not nearly as important to most as appearing to be truthful. Actual truth for truth’s sake is not desired, most people simply want to be confirmed in what they already believe. It matters little if what they believe is actually true, what is most important to them is not “rocking the boat.” Speaking the unpopular and unwelcome truth to such individuals and groups is dangerous. Perhaps not physically, in the sense of getting beat down, but definitely in the sense of being ostracized and ignored. As Honest Abe surely discovered later that evening, telling the truth does not come without several relationship landmines, regardless of what the relationship is: work, family, friends, or spouses. Speaking the truth can indeed be dangerous.

However, it should be quickly remembered that anything worth doing does not come without risks. This is why carefully thinking about what we say is such good advice. Too often, we go off on untruths half-cocked and end up doing more damage than is necessary. Just because you are listening to a radical doesn’t mean that you need to become one. Again, the Bible provides the correct attitude: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Rather than getting irritated with your know-it-all brother-in-law the next time he opens his mouth, try speaking softly in response. Don’t let his ignorance divert your delivery of truth. If what you are saying is really true, shouting it does not make it any more true. In fact, you might just find that he is reasonable after all and that he was only reacting to you. Maybe, maybe not. At least you’ll be keeping your blood pressure under control and will have less trouble sleeping that night.