Word Choice Matters
I tend to be a bit draconian about words, grammar and language. The irony is that I make a lot of typos, but that’s not what this post is about. This post is about my belief that precision in language creates effective communication. I also believe that creativity is engendered with we take the time to find the right words.
There is a belief in our society that if you know what I mean then my lazy words are good enough. I don’t agree. Thumb-typing on a smartphone notwithstanding, I believe that when we have something important to say we need to take the time to say it well.
I believe in the spiritual power of language. We use words to pray. We use words in ritual. We use words in magick. There’s a reason for that. Words really do have power.
I want to cite two examples of poor word choice that have made me cringe this week. The first is from an anti-bullying meme floating around Facebook. You’ve probably seen it. This meme irritates me so much I have actually commented (politely) when I have seen my friends post it. I always get the same response. My friends agree it’s not worded well, but to them it’s the thought that counts. I don’t really see it that way. I think a negative message is damaging even if the original intention was good.
The meme in question begins “That girl you called a slut in class today, she’s a virgin. The pregnant girl walking down the street, she got raped.”
It goes on to discuss other victims of bullying, such as “the boy you made fun of for crying, his mother is dying.”
The obvious point of the meme is that one can’t know the reality of a person’s life and so bullying a person based on your suppositions is wrong. I completely agree. But bullying a person for any reason is wrong – end of story.
As of today this meme has been shared 244,842 times. Am I the only one who finds this meme completely disturbing?
If a child were crying for a less dire reason than a dying mother would that mean he deserved to be bullied? If an old man’s face were scarred in a bar fight rather than a war would it be acceptable to mock his appearance?
The worst part for me is the obvious misogyny of the first two lines. To me this meme says that if the girl were not a virgin it would be just fine to slut-shame her. According to this meme getting pregnant by consensual sex is clearly less acceptable than getting pregnant through the horror of rape.
According to this meme, young women who enjoy sex deserve to be bullied. What we don’t want to do is slut-shame a girl who didn’t choose to have sex. Slut-shaming a girl who likes sex is just fine.
The idea that we can’t know a person’s circumstance is valid. This meme takes an evil twist by suggesting that if we know a person’s background we can make an educated decision about whether or not to bully them.
My second example of really regrettable word choice came to my attention when Chris Christie screamed at a teacher who is a member of the Badass Teacher Association. I couldn’t believe that a group of teachers – those whose job it is to teach communication skills and inspire creativity – couldn’t come up with a better way to describe themselves than “badass.” If a student wrote an essay describing herself as “badass” would that be an A paper?
I fully support the goals of the Badass Teacher Association but I am shocked and saddened by their word choice. I fear, too, that young teachers are the product of the very education system against which they now rail. No wonder they don’t have enough command of the language to find a decent name. The term “badass” is listed in the Oxford Dictionary as slang. It’s actually a word I use from time to time.
In my opinion, a slang term based on an off-color word is not an appropriate title for a formal association of educators. If our educators don’t care about the language we share, who will? It’s tough for me to believe that they care about education as much as they say they do if the best word they can find to describe themselves is “badass.”
I know language is always changing. I know we don’t speak the same way we did a hundred years ago. What concerns me is the prevalent concept that the words we choose don’t matter. The excuse is that we know what we mean, so we don’t need to be picky about how we say it.
I think if we don’t see the value of careful word choice the words we say will eventually cease to have any power or clear meaning at all.