". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Words, Words, Words

It happened again.

Someone, somewhere on the internet, used a word someone else didn't like.

I don't know the particulars of the situation. What I do know is that the situation was discussed at length elsewhere online, and the person-in-question's discernment and integrity questioned, without any mention of an attempt to approach him about his use of the word or to inform him that it had hurt someone.

I find this both sad and disturbing: sad because I love the written word but increasingly see the futility of much of it online; and disturbing because this could have easily happened to me. I didn't know the word at issue had become politically incorrect. In fact, I saw it used in print today, by a distinguished and respected scholar and columnist. I guess he didn't get the memo either.

I say this could happen to me. Actually, it has happened to me. I am not going to share particulars either of the current example or my past one, because I don't wish to get into debates about individual words. But what I would like to suggest is that if a word offends you, there are helpful and unhelpful ways to respond. If you sincerely believe the word to be offensive to a large number of people, you can go to the person who used it and, for his own good, suggest that he not use the word. In this case you would actually be doing him a favor. Maybe he will heed your advice; maybe he will not. But at that point you have done what you can, and it is time to drop it. If you want to appeal to the general public to avoid the word, by all means, do so. But make the focus of your appeal the word, and not the person or people who used it. Here's how you do that. Instead of rolling your eyes and asking what kind of clueless, insensitive dummy uses that word, issue a carefully considered and earnest plea about why you find the word objectionable and why you would appreciate people avoiding it. ("I saw the word _____ in print today. This word bothers me because . . . .")

Or, alternatively, you can choose to overlook. For my own part, I do this a lot. I have come to realize that I am more sensitive than most people about language. I think it is in part because I grew up in a home where words were frequently used as weapons. I compare it to having an allergy. I was exposed to great amounts of second-hand smoke growing up, and now I can't stand to be around cigarette smoke and have an immediate and strong allergic reaction whenever I am. In the same way, I grew up among frequent uses of profane and vulgar and just mean talk. I now have no tolerance for it, and I realize that this is my own issue. For me, "cra*" is vulgar, but for many people it doesn't seem to be. I can't abide the acronym "OM*" because to me it is nothing short of taking the Lord's name in vain. But I also realize that many people who use that expression don't hear it as such. I have expressed my opinion to my family and, whether or not they agree with me, they respect my position and in love don't use that phrase (and others) around me. If I see or hear the expression elsewhere I look the other way and remind myself that it is probably not the intent of the speaker or writer to break the Second Commandment or to offend anyone. If I choose to be offended, that is my problem.

I would like to think that it is still possible to have fruitful discussions online about things that matter. I increasingly doubt that to be the case. But maybe if more of us gave more thought to both our word choices and our reactions to them, we would come a little closer to the mark.


Jody S. said...

While I would love to know the word so I don't use it, I understand. I was so thankful when somebody came to me one time. I used a phrase my mother always used with me quite innocently. . . because I was being loud, energetic, and bouncing all over the place. But telling a classroom of mostly black students to stop acting like a bunch of monkeys was not good. I was not up on stereotypes and derogatory terms, so I was mortified but thankful that my teaching assistant told me afterwards.

Cheryl said...

Jody, if you want to message me privately I would be happy to tell you the word(s). It is so hard to navigate the language minefield these days!