We’re all thinking about words this week–what we should have said or not said, which conversations we should have walked (or clicked) away from, or how we could phrase something differently from now on. Anyone who’s not asking that question of themselves, even casually, anyone who doesn’t bother to reflect for even a second on how they participate this latest version of “How did we get here?” I have to assume is pathologically arrogant. We all tacitly allow stuff to go on that should probably stop. We all say things that could be said differently.
57 percent of the country thinks that political speech had nothing to do with what happened on Saturday and I’m going to bet a good chunk of that 57 percent would spontaneously combust at the thought of restricting that speech. There’s a contradiction in there: the words didn’t matter, but then again, they do and they have and they will, so back off. I don’t think you can have it both ways. I’m not advocating for restricting any speech, I’m advocating for fearlessly acknowledging the awesome power of that speech, bowing humbly before your dictionary.
Consider the questions the statistic itself raises: Who wrote the survey that enabled someone to arrive at that statistic? Who made the choice that allowed that number to become part of the conversation? At its roots, speech is about choice. There’s almost nothing involuntary about language once we get past the most basic stages.
I once read a horribly boring book about the evolution of language that I still have and still think about all the time. It was an argument about what role language plays in the formation of power and leadership and class. It was a book about hierarchies and how they’re both formed and undermined by language. To say any more would make you all go someplace else, but it was great, even as I groaned at every page. The words we choose describe and reveal our status, membership, access. Even to deny it or turn away from that power structure, whatever it is, we still have to engage it. To escape it entails a silence as difficult as choosing not to breathe.
There are a couple of words out there that I can’t stand to hear; words that intelligent, thoughtful people use all the time. Useful descriptors, they’re generally accepted in the casual conversation of even the most cautious speakers. They drive me bananas because of the weight they carry that we’ve all forgotten about, or have chosen to look past. They’re easy–they get the job done–but they’re cruel. I’m not listing them here because I’m not willing to give anyone the opportunity to try to defend their use, nor am I interested in shaming anyone out of using them. You’re all smart people–you can make your own decisions. I probably have a few in my vocabulary that have the same effect on someone else. In fact, I know I do. It’s statistically impossible for me not to.
Recently a friend told me a story and dropped in one of those words I can’t stand. This is a friend whose compassion I admire, but hearing that word felt like taking a really good stretch and getting poked in the ribs. Did I say anything about it? Nope. I’ve had that conversation often enough and I come off sounding like a loon. Also, sometimes it distracts from an otherwise great conversation. I’m lazy, too.
Let’s all think about something–and I’m not asking for comments, I’m asking for silent contemplation: Which words do you not need to use? Which words do you use and defend with a weird ferocity? Which ones do you claim you have a right to use no matter how other people feel about them, but that, truthfully, there are a dozen others that would still get the job done? Let’s say some of those words fall into both categories–what could you replace them with? And why don’t you make the effort? What are you afraid to lose?