Semantics: Because Words Matter

My friend Cynde had a genius Facebook status the other day, one which sparked good conversation and got me thinking – she really helped crystallize something in my head which has been swirling around for a long time, specifically, what we call something, the words we use, make a difference in how we feel about them.

Cynde declared war on “tolerance,” likening tolerating human beings as taking the same attitude as tolerating lima beans in her soup, or nuts in brownies, that tolerance of fellow humans was akin to holding one’s nose and eating the spinach, but complaining about it later. Her brilliant, simple assessment flipped on the light in my head, and I realized what’s been troubling me about tolerance: it’s not the same as respect, not by a long shot. I told you – she’s a genius!

It was the lima bean reference that put the point on it for me. Flash back a million years or so when I was a child and eating a big bowl of my mother’s chili (which I loved, by the by). It was thick and rich and yes, it had beans but it also had squishy stewed tomatoes, which I loathed. As a child I disliked all tomatoes on principle because the seeds look vaguely larval, and never mind that tomatoes were the basis of so many things I loved, like spaghetti, pizza, and Campbell’s tomato soup (with grilled cheese sandwiches, of course). So I’d bitch and moan and ceremoniously fish those stewed-tomato particles out of my chili, depositing them with a great deal of attitude and flair, into my mother’s bowl. She could eat them if she liked them so much. As a teenager, the rough side of my mother’s tongue and wicked-fast backhand taught me to shut up and tolerate them, so I no longer fished them out of my bowl but rather pointedly left them there after all else was eaten, or gagged them back with a grimace and undoubtedly some vigorous eye-rolling.

But a funny thing happened on the way to maturity: somewhere down the line I gave tomatoes a chance, probably when I encountered a farm-fresh or home-grown one, ripe and juicy and delicious all on its own. I moved from tolerating them, with the underlying resentment of their very presence, into respecting them, and finally liking them a whole bunch.

What Cynde helped me realize is that when we say we tolerate a person or people whom we deem “other,” what we’re really doing is holding our noses and deigning to permit their co-existence in our sphere without bitching about it to their faces. And that’s kind of condescending and icky, really, because of the implicit, if not explicit resentment that comes with it. Respect is different; respect carries no resentment, respect says “You’re different than me but that’s ok because we both bring gifts and value to this thing called Life, and that’s cool.” It’s my opinion that if we stop tolerating the folks who are “other” in our minds and work towards respecting them, we’ll flush out and banish a lot of hidden resentment and anger in our collective life.

There are other words and phrases grating on me, and which I believe make our lives unnecessarily difficult or sometimes purposefully obfuscated, like Human Resources. Once upon a time large businesses had a Personnel Department, and it dealt with People. Somewhere down the corporate road, I suspect hand-in-hand with lay-offs and outsourcing and maximizing efficiencies, humans became commodities, just like copper, pork bellies, or frozen concentrated orange juice futures. It’s so much easier to lay off 20,000 faceless human resources in order to maximize efficencies and guarantee stockholders a fat dividend check, than 20,000 actual personnel with faces, families, and lives.

Lately I hear the term “Food Insecurity” being bandied about. Meaning hunger, right? Children living with food insecurity are hungry. I know this, because I’ve actually met them, the kids who don’t qualify for Free and Reduced lunch, but who’s cafeteria account runs dry about three days before their mom gets paid. When they came into my office looking for snacks, those children were hungry. Saying children are food insecure is somehow less scary than saying, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, that they are hungry. What I’d like to hear someone say is why the hell are they hungry? followed closely by, how do we immediately ensure they are no longer hungry?

Perhaps it is part of whatever societal infection has everyone insulted all the time. We’ve become such delicate little flowers we can’t stand to hear something called by it’s name. It’s like political rhetoric, how they string together a lot of nice-sounding words that, when analyzed, really have no meaning. “Make America Great Again” –  what the actual fuck does that even mean? But the crowd roars and applauds, never questioning, buoyed by their collective anger and turning it on anyone who appears “other”. I find it all extremely worrying.

I couldn’t begin to count the number of times I’ve been told I could have phrased something better, made some ugly truth somehow more palatable to the ear. But I was the kid who ripped the band-aid off quick, who jumped into the water all at once rather than bit by bit. At times of crisis in my family, I was the truth teller to my mother’s fantasy-spinner. She hid from the horrible reality of things, while I preferred to look the enemy in the eye, stand and fight, but I’ve always hated the judgment of others when I do. I guess at my advanced age it’s just time to own being the person who calls ’em likes I sees ’em, and stop being so worried about what others think of me.

Cynde, loins girded and sword drawn, I will fight by your side any day, challenging all purveyors of obfuscation, bullshit, and meaningless rhetoric, beginning with myself because I’m sure I’m full of tolerance where respect would serve better.


One thought on “Semantics: Because Words Matter

  1. I love this post! You are so right – the words we use really do matter. There was a programme on the radio this morning about memory, and apparently if you ask about a car crash using the word “smashed” (what speed were the cars doing when they smashed into each other?) people will remember them as going faster than if you used the word “bumped”. The language we use does have an impact on our thoughts about things.

    Liked by 1 person

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