“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” When I was a kid, that children’s chant was a talisman to protect us from the startlingly painful names that kids fling—Fatty, Stinky, Coke-Bottle Bottoms and worse.
But the words stay with us. Yes, I’d rather be called a name than physically beaten. But because words always exist within conceptual frames they drag a whole lot of clandestine baggage along.
I have recently received several e-mails where the language was injudicious. I’d say unskillful, except I think the writers knew exactly what buttons their words pushed. One referred to having children as “spawning”—an image of mindless reproduction and subsequent abandonment far from the heart-rending reality of parenting. Another referred to “Darwin at work,” insinuating that those who die because they didn’t get vaccinated are less fit, evolutionarily, and hence expendable. The final e-mail referred to our government as a “puppet government,” language which conjures the image of illegitimate regimes propped up by sinister forces.
While we can argue ad nauseum about just what we should be doing right now, the fact is that our language always carries unexpressed conceptual frames. This matters.
The way that Nazi Germany managed to separate the people from each other—a separation which made the Holocaust possible—was with words. It’s called propaganda no matter who does it. Propaganda tilts our words and litters our speech with innuendo and imputation. Propaganda is sneaky, underhanded, and ruthless. Adolf Hitler put it this way in Mein Kampf: “Propaganda must not investigate the truth objectively…it must present only that aspect of the truth which is favorable to its own side.”
There are two ways to make community. One is by drawing a line—by using language—that keeps people out, that calls names, that divides. The other way is by drawing a bigger circle, by using language that invites participation, that takes us all in.
It used to be that this time of year several thousand of us would head to New Denver for the Garlic Fest. There we would see our neighbors selling produce, or urging us to join local societies, or playing music, or peddling homemade muffins for a good cause. This kind of community gathering, even if we barely speak to anyone, produces a sense of belonging. But we don’t have the Garlic Fest; we don’t have concerts; we don’t have harvest potlucks. We’ve lost our sources of communal joy. I would say that we are collectively feeling our way through this pandemic: the choices are difficult, the fallout truly painful. Notice my framing here?
If we choose to find our sense of belonging in exclusionary language and in blame, we will lose our society. Just look across the border, if you doubt this.
When we talk about freedom or responsibility these days, can we please speak without the imputation of blame and hatred? “Those people” are our neighbors. Our life together matters.
Sticks and stones follow close on our words.