Choose your words wisely
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.