Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Words Matter

By Susan Esther Barnes

I’m old enough to remember when people in wheelchairs were called crippled. Then the idea arose that there should be convenient parking spaces for people with mobility issues, but signs saying “Crippled Parking” didn’t sound palatable, so they went with “Disabled Parking.”

Then there was a big push to stop talking about “Disabled” and to say instead, “Differently Abled.” Somewhere in there the word “Handicapped” became popular, and now we mostly just have blue paint and signs with the internationally recognized depiction of a person in a wheelchair. I guess the lobby for people with canes, walkers, and prosthetic legs was asleep at the switch the day that decision was made.

This odyssey of a condition in search of an acceptable descriptive word is one category of what has come to be known as “political correctness” or “being PC.”

Another form of political correctness is the disapproval of the way a word is used. For example, the word “gay” has come to mean “homosexual.” In the online video games I play, the word “gay” used to be used frequently as an insult, in reference to something of which the speaker disapproved. The implication was that homosexuals are not okay, so therefore calling something “gay” meant that thing also was not okay.

Because I don’t agree that gay people are not okay, I used to speak up when the word “gay” was used in this way. Sometimes I received an apology, but more often I received a response along the lines of, “You get offended too easily, and I don’t have to change what I say. You are the one with a problem,” or “I’m not going to let you PC police take over the world.”

I’m happy to say that the people I play with online now no longer use the word “gay” in this way, but I know it is still used this way in other venues, and there is still a backlash when people encounter what they perceive as overzealousness in the pursuit of political correctness.

Sometimes people misuse a word in order to emphasize a point. See, for example, this article and related comments,in which Johnny Depp compares photo shoots to being raped, and later apologizes for his poor choice or words. Many commenters say they don’t think the actor should have had to apologize; they think he shouldn’t have caved in to political correctness.

This use of the word “rape” is one way some words are used because of their power to shock or to convey a strong message. The trouble is that, in this world in which the media, celebrities, advertisers and others are constantly fighting for our attention, formerly powerful words are overused. As a result, they can lose their impact or even their original meaning.

Words whose impact is being diminished by inappropriate uses include words important to Jews and Zionists, such as, “Hitler,” “Nazi,” and “apartheid,” along with a whole host of other words which are important to the public at large. The more these words are overused and misused, the more they lose their meaning.

I had a friend once who used to swear like a sailor. Every sentence was punctuated by words that fifty years ago would never be used in polite company. The trouble was, when the time came that she truly wanted to emphasize something, she couldn’t do it. She had no powerful words left. They had all been devalued to the point that what would be shocking in other circumstances was, coming from her mouth, routine.

Although I do have some concern that we do, at times, go too far in trying to moderate the speech of others, that concern is outweighed by my fear that our language is being diminished by the incorrect use of words and the overuse of words meant to grab attention.

Like the story of the boy who cried, “Wolf,” I fear the day will come when the word we mean really is “rape,” or “Nazi,” or “apartheid,” but we will not be heard because these words have been so overused that they have become meaningless. I am concerned that if, one day, an issue needs our dire attention, it will be lost in the cacophony of bold headlines and exclamation points, and we will not notice it until it is too late.

So, at the risk of being overly “PC,” please, people, watch your language. Don’t use words that convey something other than what you truly mean. Don’t try to shock when shock is not necessary. Think about your words before you say them.

In the beginning, God created the world with words, and it is said that the world can be destroyed with words as well. Words matter.

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