In Other Words

I’m not big on banning words, but I am pro thoughtful and considerate usage. Words, like actions, have consequences. That’s why we use them.

Before the real bloodbath of Friday the 13th in Paris four days ago, we were grappling with the sometimes conflicting necessities of racial sensitivity and free speech. For some, sensitivity means easily piqued; for others, sensitivity means the opposite— consideration, discernment, understanding, empathy. We see this different use and application of the word sensitivity much like the application of the word entitled; for some, entitled implies deserving based on qualification; for others, entitled implies someone who thinks s/he is deserving without having to do anything; spoiled.

In cases like entitlement and sensitivity, usage often falls within political party lines. It’s as though we are losing a common language. But, language does evolve, and reconsidering words and their usages reflects cultural (and sometimes personal) evolution.

It is easy to grasp the phrase “a clash of civilizations” when referring to terrorist groups who want to topple governments and seize territory through violence, distorted religion, and regression, as we have seen with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and with what we tend to call ISIS or ISIL (including more than Syria) or now the derogatorily named Daesh. Some have countered that the phrase “clash of civilizations” is hyperbolic and inaccurate because the fight is against Civilization, not against two civilizations. In other words, we dignify or dishonor depending on our word choices.

On the home front, we tend to distinguish between “politically correct” terms deemed considerate and preserving dignity, and terms that may be considered as derogatory or used to degrade or keep one outside. The recent backlashes to “politically correct” speech are sometimes motivated by discrimination, but other times, they are an effort to reclaim dignity in a new context; in effect, to show control over what was once terminology used for oppression. Others seek to acknowledge that speech is a protected right in this country and must not be silenced regardless of content.

I don’t believe that just because we have a Constitutional right to free speech, that speech is free. It is, like all freedom, embedded with responsibility, and that means consequences, intended and unintended. Our own grappling with words and phrases and how they reflect on us as a culture can get a bit messy, as we have seen many times during the last year alone, and recently on college campuses. Political rhetoric has always been with us, but we also see grassroots cultural rhetoric that seeks to dismantle some of the prevailing policies, and politics, cultural norms as well as inconsiderate behavior.

The way in which events are characterized is now mostly a matter of politics. Our task is to be aware of rhetoric. How words are used reflects and fosters dispositions. Even the word rhetoric, which refers to the way with words, can be defined as eloquence or as bombast; persuasion or lacking in sincerity or meaningful content. Politicization of events occurs through rhetoric—through word usage intended to persuade, either with eloquence or bombast.

The politicization of deaths to due terrorism and other violence seems to have the effect of dividing rather than uniting us in mission, which halts progress.
What should be done with so many Syrians fleeing Syria? We debate whether we should call them migrants or refugees. Refugees are those who flee their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. However, for the politicians who fear terrorists entering our borders (not an unreasonable fear), they can state their position as not wanting to give refuge to terrorists, thereby conflating refugees with giving refuge to terrorists. And migrants? I don’t remember hearing that term before recently to describe those fleeing persecution. The politicization of the word refugee has created the current use of migrant as an alternative to refer to those seeking refuge from war and persecution.
I started by saying that I don’t generally believe in banning words, but I am in favor of thoughtful and considerate usage. The manhunt for the so-called “mastermind” of the recent Paris attacks is one case in which I think it’s time to abandon the term “mastermind” when used to describe perpetrators of violence against innocent people. We often use it with an invisible or silent “evil” preceding the word mastermind. The title “Mastermind” aggrandizes those who conceive of methods to kill innocent people. Life takes much more mastery than killing innocent people and inspiring fear. This guy may have been the chief organizer and strategist, but why dignify the monster with a title that should be reserved for those whose intelligence produces that which is constructive and life affirming?

We tend to denigrate honest, hardworking, patriotic people who may have different opinions, but we aggrandize and empower the real troublemakers, criminals and monsters, especially when we foment fear. In other words, we can consider or ignore; dignify or dishonor; empower or degrade. Words, like actions, have power and consequences. Use them wisely.

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