Choose your words wisely

The Southern Gazette - - EDITORIAL - Everett Hobbs Con­cep­tion Bay South

It is the time of year again when we hear ap­peals to help those hav­ing dif­fi­culty pay­ing for food and other ne­ces­si­ties. We some­times re­fer to them as “less for­tu­nate.”

In it­self it may be an in­no­cent term used to de­scribe those whose in­come is not suf­fi­cient to meet ba­sic hu­man needs. Our use of words says a lot about our be­liefs, at­ti­tudes and treat­ment of each other. “Less for­tu­nate” seems a suit­able phrase but it raises the is­sue of how we re­fer to oth­ers with­out di­min­ish­ing them and dis­tanc­ing our­selves from them.

The words we use to de­scribe what we see ac­tu­ally de­ter­mine how and what we see. They re­veal our perceptions, at­ti­tudes and feelings about oth­ers and the re­la­tion­ships that en­sue. We also need to dis­tin­guish be­tween a de­scrip­tion and a la­bel. A de­scrip­tion should be de­tached and im­pas­sioned. A la­bel over­sim­pli­fies, stereo­types and cat­e­go­rizes peo­ple. La­bels are based on un­ex­am­ined as­sump­tions, and re­flect opin­ions and be­liefs that of­ten be­lit­tle oth­ers. Once you la­bel me, you negate me. In defin­ing oth­ers, we ex­pose the truth about our­selves more than about oth­ers.

The words we use, how we use them and the con­text in which they are used can ei­ther cause of­fence and re­jec­tion, or pro­mote wel­com­ing and in­clu­sion. Our words may re­flect con­tempt for oth­ers, in­dif­fer­ence or com­pas­sion. When our words are false, un­jus­ti­fied or judg­men­tal, the out­come is dis­crim­i­na­tion, of­ten en­forced by ru­mour and gos­sip.

We should avoid defin­ing peo­ple by their lim­i­ta­tions, es­pe­cially phys­i­cal and men­tal. It is a good prac­tice, if we have to re­fer to a lim­i­ta­tion, to pref­ace it with “per­son.” For ex­am­ple, we use “per­son with lep­rosy” in­stead of “leper.” Each us­age con­veys a dif­fer­ent im­pres­sion. When we must use words about oth­ers, choose lan­guage that af­firms and re­spects oth­ers. Con­sider how words may af­fect those who are the re­cip­i­ents or ob­jects of our com­ments.

Peo­ple are com­plex, mul­ti­fac­eted and mul­ti­di­men­sional, and we be­lit­tle oth­ers when we clas­sify them by ap­pear­ance, race, class, re­li­gion, cul­ture, gen­der, pol­i­tics, em­ploy­ment and so on. Words can be used to di­vide, dam­age and de­stroy. Words can also be used to unite, heal and re­store. When words are used as weapons, they triv­i­al­ize, ridicule, con­demn and judge. The re­cent U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cam­paign was a sober­ing ex­am­ple of the mis­use of words.

One of the most re­mark­able ex­am­ples of au­then­tic com­mu­nity liv­ing is L’Arche, which was founded by Jean Vanier. Its man­date is to wel­come those with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties who need ex­tra help in daily liv­ing. These homes are places where peo­ple who are very dif­fer­ent can live to­gether by lov­ing and ac­cept­ing each other. What­ever the dis­abil­i­ties and dif­fi­cul­ties, ev­ery­one is re­garded as equal. In this re­la­tion­ship each per­son comes to rec­og­nize their own weak­ness and vul­ner­a­bil­ity, and the fact that we need each other. We are in­ter­de­pen­dent. L’Arche at­tempts to prac­tice ac­cep­tance, un­der­stand­ing and com­pas­sion by valu­ing each per­son.

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