But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. —James 3:8

With the same tongue, we explode into argumentative rants, console the mourning, show others what we know, plead for sympathy, back-stab, make peace… The tongue puts on a show, or refuses to even whisper. Then it shouts, then it stutters, unsure of why it speaks. How does this thing– more intimate than we can tell– go so easily from confession to curse, seduction to condemnation? How do we allow it so much– repeating what it’s heard as if it were its own, talking over the other so as not to hear?

The tongue seems born to confuse. We’re talking before we know what a “word” is, we’re speaking and growing in our identity before we have any idea of who we are, before we’ve given any thought to what it is to “be.” It doesn’t demand anything from us, not the slightest care, not the least consideration: the tongue simply follows our desire– our desire to be desired, our desire to be recognized– in all its maddening ambiguity, its crass imitation, its immaturity and deceit. Just recall the awkward silence, the inopportune outburst, the mistimed word: does the tongue ever really know what it’s doing? is it ever quite certain who it speaks?

We act as if this goes without saying– and indeed it does– but does it? It’s worth considering this cunning organ of promise and lie; and to contemplate how well, how carefully, we wield its dangerous power. Because as we all know, speaking shapes our reality, shapes all of our relationships. The tongue is what glues us to each other, not only under a common language, not only as humans, but down to the most minute levels of interaction: every e-mail, every text, every poster, every broadcast, every conversation, every message. Every sweet nothing: the shoulders speak, the averted glance speaks, silence speaks. Everything about us, every gesture, is expressive. Everything talks, without needing to know what it’s saying or how it will be received. This risky adventure under-girds everything– and makes us speak.

We’re often reminded that, along with money troubles, a “lack of communication” is the leading cause of failed marriages. I would say it is also the leading cause of distress in our contemporary society– and not just at the level of political discourse, which is clearly rife with lies and “two-faced” speech. It contributes to our inability to imagine anything other than a society devoted to production and profit; our inability to conceive of education as anything more than the acquisition of knowledge; our inability to bridge our differences and unite around common articles of care and action. But implicit with a lack of communication is a whole host of things the tongue won’t say, can’t say, and refuses to bring out into the open, as well as a slew of insensitive things the tongue says in spite of itself, so as to hide its insecurities, infidelities, and uncertainties. For the tongue just follows emotion, flows unconsciously, and rarely looks out for where it’s going. It’s no good at predicting consequences either– since the meaning of what we say is decided, not by the tongue, but by the ear, i.e., by someone other than the one who is speaking. The tongue’s traffic is as ignorant as it wants to be, and as illegible, as greedy as it is “egotistic.” But such is the fortuitousness of the world: fate rides on the slightest phrase, on the tiniest bit of timing and tone, on the most delicate gesture. And as we all know, the slightest observation, the slightest comment, can ruin us, can change our lives forever.

Without offering any answers, I just want to ask: What are the different motives for all these different modes of speech? And why such great variety of intention? From whom do we seek approval in these different cases? With whom do we censor ourselves, with whom do we let ourselves go? Who guarantees our little fibs? Who guarantees our secret discourse? How often do we just mimic? How can we be sure it is really “us” who is speaking? How do we know if we’re being sincere? And where does this power of speech come from, why do we pay such little attention to it? What all have we invested in the untamed tongue? What will it take to tame it?


I believe there is a great deal at stake in what James tells us in verse 3:8. In this brief commentary, I’m not concerned with toeing the Christian line. There is no danger in subtracting his words from the “Christian context” when James himself was not speaking to “Christians” (at the time, remember, there were none) but to all human beings, to all speaking beings. I will argue that, for James, when it comes to matters of the tongue, what matters most is not “what” one says but how one says it. Or, to be even more clear, that the way a person talks “is” what they say. My goal here is simply to dwell on this suggestion, and to think through what it might mean for us in our daily practice of speech.

Of course, this perspective runs contrary to how we normally operate. When we listen to someone, we are usually listening for “what they say.” That’s where the emphasis lies. We exert our powers of judgment and interpretation on that “what.” We focus on the content being expressed, on the article of knowledge being argued or advanced, on the belief being professed. And so, when we do evaluate “how” something is said, it’s usually for the sake of factoring it into our evaluation of that “something”– or to a character judgment of who’s speaking, which lets us accept or deny what they’re saying that much more easily. We place value in being correct, in saying the right thing, in having the right opinion, in passing the test. But above all we value being in the “position” of the one who knows. We value the information that the tongue transmits, its degree of authority. We ask is, What is that person saying?, precisely because we want to know; and because we rely on the power of the tongue to get us to know it– to convince us that we can know it also, and say it in our turn. That’s how we get recognized and legitimized: by giving the password, by pushing the right buttons with our speech.

Now, I would say that, for James, “taming the tongue” and “never being at fault in what one says” does not mean “saying the right things,” giving the correct answers, or professing the right beliefs. The truth, for James, is not of the order of true/false. To tame the tongue does not mean to say all the acceptable things. It means to conduct it and oneself in the broadest sense as a vehicle for humility and intersubjectivity, for the sake of relation, forgiveness, and peace. That is why taming the tongue, for James, is the crucial factor for keeping the whole body in check: it means deprioritizing selfish concerns of power for the sake of sharing in a symbolic exchange aware of the fragility of our shared finitude.

It’s difficult to get an exact sense of the difference I’m trying to draw out, because speech always operates on many levels. But I want to make my thesis as radical as possible, and to advance that there are two basic ways to think about communication, and that ultimately we must choose between the two. The first sees language as a tool for information, authority, knowledge, and power; the other experiences language as that which connects and relates beings on an equal playing field, with a shared incapacity to say what it means to be and to die. The first views speech as something which transpires between isolated beings, who talk to one another as if they were objects separated by an abyss, alienated and thus able to manipulate and destroy each other; the other experiences speech as that which transforms speaking beings with every word, puts them in contact with one another, realizes between them a shared world. I want to place as much emphasis on this as Jesus tried to place on matters of the heart when he said, “No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve both God and money [mammon].” No one can serve intersubjectivity and knowledge, sharing and authority, at the same time, because they are totally opposed in their objectives and imply radically different accounts of self and world. One has to choose, and this choice will have ramifications down to the very core of our being.

I think we ought to read James’ disagreement with Paul regarding faith and works from this perspective. As he tells us, even the demons are capable of believing the right things, of saying the right things, and of trembling before God. They are seduced by content, by gnosis of God, and by their show of obedience. Through the appeal of “what” they are professing, they let themselves overlook how they are going about it. They may have the right faith, but they’ve forgotten the “way”– that what matters is not their prostrations, but their actual relations to others. They’ve missed the underlying connection between speech and deed. Their faith is dead: it’s all empty words, a bunch of bland repetitions, the meaning of which they’ve forgotten in their zeal to be approved by other demons, to pass what they suppose is the litmus test of salvation. Thus they are Legion: they all want to be approved as a member of the group, so they chant in unison the same unthought line. But this drive to conform barely masks their confusion, and James sees right through it. They don’t know what they’re saying, because all they’re doing is saying it. Their tongues aren’t tame; and so, tongue-tied, all they can do is set the forest on fire, which they seem to happily proceed to do.

By contrast, if we are really in touch with the “truth,” we see that all outward signs mislead and deceive. Knowing or believing the right stuff– thinking that we know– only separates us from each other, because it places us in a position of supposed superiority. We all know what this is like, because we deceive ourselves into thinking that we know what’s best; and that what is most important in life really does have to do with having the right perspective or “world-view,” the best theory,or whatever. But as Kant once wrote, “the human being knows how to distort even inner declarations before his own consciousness.”  The way we declare ourselves goes right to the innermost space of our existence. Something in us is always speaking, but to know what it says demands an intersubjective account of speech, stripped of all pretensions to authority. Because not only do we not know what’s best for others, we barely know what’s best for ourselves; and the only way to go forward in that case is to listen.

If James tells us that nothing is more difficult than taming the tongue, and that ultimately, no one can do it, it is because it takes great effort to be truly humble in speech, and to speak “without partiality and without hypocrisy”– to make no oaths, to let our simple Yes or No do the talking. This brings the choice between what and how, between knowledge and intersubjectivity, into full relief: if oaths don’t matter, it means that what we “profess” about ourselves and our allegiances matters less than the link that exists between us prior to every establishment, institution, or doctrine. This link is what I’m calling “intersubjectivity”: the fact that we speak without knowing what to say, without knowing exactly who speaks. Of course anyone can regurgitate the party line; but what matters is to encounter the other “beyond the line,” or “between the lines,” in all of his or her messy singularity. What matters is to let oneself be changed in and by that encounter, to be given over to it, and to find no consistency outside that active link. What matters is not what I posit, mean, believe, intend, and know (or think I know). What matters is that I listen, that I hear and receive, that I let myself be exposed in the encounter and in our speech.

For James, that exposure is the essence of faith. To show you my faith by my works means that what I love will be shown by my way, by the way I am exposed. How I say the thing will speak much louder than what I say, because ultimately, the “what” of speech is nothing in comparison to who that speech connects. Long explanations, pious displays, shows of religiosity: these are not needed and can only fall into the trap of the demon’s culture. What matters, on the contrary, goes beyond the words. It can only be found in the love between us that we make real with our risky speech. To do this we have to attend to intersubjectivity, even as it exists at the heart of our inner declarations, making conscious the confusion of tongues that holds us together. Then it becomes clear that priority has to go to the very nature of the relation itself. Then our lives become focused on how the intersubjective relation, the symbolic exchange, is inaugurated and sustained in thought, word, and deed, throughout the ages and forever.

Because how we speak, how we communicate, “is” our being. It is the real water spouting forth from our spring, the real uniqueness we have in the community of speaking beings. While it is clear that “content” is still important, that knowledge and belief have a role to play, too often it makes us forget to attend to the underlying relations without which it is meaningless. It makes us forget our shared finitude, makes us overlook the suffering other. It makes us speak without listening, forcing what we think onto others, as if what really mattered was that we all think the same things, did the same things, and professed the same values. I believe that there can be another way of speaking that begins with listening– that tries to make its very speech a vessel for listening, relation, intersubjectivity, and love. That is where I see the real faith coming to fruition: in an experience of living and speaking with all the others, however tongue-tied, abandoned to this common predicament of not knowing what to say.

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