Years ago, when I was in high school (this was shortly after the world cooled, I know), you could be sent to the principal’s office for punishment if you:
- chewed gum
- wore a skirt that did not touch the ground when you kneeled
- used “swear” words like “damn,” “hell,” or “crap.”
- did not do your homework (including math) in ink–the kind that comes in a fountain pen.
- were seen off campus talking to a boy
Sure, it was a long time ago, but culture changes because of peer pressure, changing fads, technology and getting used to and not rejecting often-heard words.
Hearing a word, one new to you, can be excellent in vocabulary building. Just today, I learned the word “psychogeographic” and am finding the field interesting. I’m not talking about that kind of change.
When a word is repeated by an ever-larger group of people, it quickly becomes OK for you to start using it, too. You’ve seen this in business. “Paradigm shift” went from being unknown, to the word to use for change in about two years. The creepy buzzword incentivize first made us smirk, then nod, then use it. Motivate, which means the same thing, seemed boring by comparison.
A popular coach drops the F-bomb frequently. His followers begin doing it, too. Why? Because they want to imitate behavior they find interesting. The coach is interesting, so dropping the F-bomb seems first daring, then OK, then mainstream.
In Forest Grove, Oregon, a group of students in a physics class began to chant, “Build a wall, build a wall” at Hispanic students. The kids have heard that chant from the Republican nominee for President (I will not mention his name, to stop search engines from indexing repetitions). Maybe they heard it repeated by news channels, then their parents, peers, friends. At first it was daring, then it became commonplace. Normal. OK to use in public.
There seems to be a lot of confusion about “I say what I think,” “First Amendment rights,” “politically correct language,” and common decency. That topic is for another blog. A complicated one, because I believe that the First Amendment was counting on a certain level of public decency, and the idea that for the first Amendment to work there is a necessary level of socioeconomic equality rather than oppression of less powerful groups by more powerful groups. This blog is about what happens when the idea of public decency shifts.
Nicholas Kristoff, writing in the New York Times, writes, “We need not be apocalyptic about it. This is not Kristallnacht. But [his] harsh rhetoric tears away the veneer of civility and betrays our national motto of ‘e pluribus unum.’ He has unleashed a beast and fed its hunger. . .” That’s what worries me–unleashing a beast and feeding its hunger. All of us are capable of fear and anger. When we start believing that we don’t need to control our fears and anger we get into a dangerous field of using words to stoke anger to meanness, meanness to bigotry and racism, and then into action.
It starts with words. It moves on into actions. And then into a shift of our own thought from simple fear and anger into thinking we are right to own that fear and anger and act on it. Mahatma Gandhi said:
Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.
Then we no longer have Kristallnacht, we have violence by the mob against the less powerful. I believe that part of what is happening in our political discussion today is the shift from fear and anger into habit and values.
I don’t know what will happen in the election in November. What I do know is that no matter how the vote goes, those angry people, those people who feel left out, short-changed, and unheard will still be in our society. They will be your neighbor, your pastor, and your doctor. And they will prove how much words matter.
“Sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never hurt you,” is a lie we tell our children because we want protect them from bullying and pain. Words hurt. Words matter. Even small ones.
–Quinn McDonald is a writer who knows the power of words to build and tear down.
Note: This is not a point of political discussion. Any comments that distract from the discussion that words are powerful will be deleted. I will not tolerate racism, fear-feeding, or anger-bating.