Words Matter

When we’re kids, I think most if not all of us learned the ditty: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me.” But the truth of it is, words can harm us. And words can help us. As we heard in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a few minutes ago, words can lift us up. Words can also bring us down. Words matter.

In part, our discussion today is the result of a promise made to a member of this congregation well over a year ago to discuss what’s called “political correctness.” And we will discuss that, and more. Especially in this time of fear and polemics, words matter. I believe they matter a lot.

A basic truth that seems to remain beneath the surface much too often is that the power to define is one of the most fundamental and important powers that exists in human relations. The power to define is the power to control. A few examples.

Like many who believe in God, I have from time to time been confronted by someone who says something to the effect: “I don’t believe in God. And you do? You believe in a bearded white guy who pulls all the strings and controls everything on Earth?” “No,” I reply. “I don’t.” Then I’m told: “Then you don’t believe in God.” That person has had God defined for him or her, and that becomes the only definition that counts.

A powerful political example. President Ronald Reagan wanted to construct a defense shield against incoming ballistic missiles. It was dubbed by Senator Ted Kennedy “Star Wars” The name stuck. The idea died. People laughed it to death. The power to define is the power to control. It can, and I’ll share two examples, turn something to be valued into something to be disdained.

The teachings of the Buddha, Black Elk, Muhammad, Jesus, the Rabbis of the Talmud, the Humanist Manifesto, all ask us to live lives of love and compassion. It’s a good goal. Who wouldn’t want to be loving and compassionate? But when I was growing up, yes, back in the 1950’s and 60’s, the words loving and compassionate disappeared. They were replaced with the words “bleeding heart.” A person who wants to share and be of help to those less fortunate ceased to be loving and compassionate. Instead, “Oh, another bleeding heart.” The power to define.

As I look at it, a large part of what has become the “Me, me, me!” fixation of America stems from our redefinition of generosity from “love and compassion” to “just another bleeding heart.” Love and compassion are hard to make fun of. But it’s easy to sneer at another bleeding heart. So yes, words matter.

Another example is in truth the root of today’s discussion. It’s hard to put down respecting other people and their right to be who they are, just as we have the right to be who we are. But “political correctness?” That’s a sneerable offense.

But beyond the wordplay of is it respect or political correctness … what are we talking about? I believe we are talking about power. If I can define you, it gives me great power over you.

When I was much younger, I was very close to a young woman who today would be called Hispanic, or possibly Latina. In those days, she and others, like Cesar Chavez, were struggling for their own identity and against the name that had been imposed on them: Mexican-American. They were asking, indeed demanding to be called Chicano or Chicana. In my youth I was rather ignorant. I asked her, what possible difference does it make? I don’t believe the term “political correctness” was in use yet, but that pretty much sums up how I felt. Her response, fortunately we were close friends so it was a calm and gentle response – but also quite firm and indeed unshakable. “We have the right to define who we are. You don’t. We have the right to be called by our name, not yours.” … Hard to argue with that.

Times change. Most in the Hispanic community will today call themselves Hispanic. But others will say Latino or Latina. And I will do my best to use the term that the person I’m speaking to prefers – not because it is “politically correct” but because Gay, Black, Hispanic, Indigenous Peoples, whoever we are we deserve each other’s respect. Not because it’s “politically correct”, but because it ought to be common courtesy.

Now there is another side to this. … Don’t you just hate that? There’s always two sides. Always!

In this case, there’s the person with a chip on his or her shoulders. Usually, if we will take a step back and look at the broader picture, this is a person who is wounded, who has been hurt by a world they’ve experienced as hateful. Still, there he or she is, just waiting for you to say or do something, anything that can be interpreted as disrespectful. And when you do, and you’re going to, they pounce. “You bigot!” What?

For me, this is where those who bridle at the thought that they need to be “politically correct” find their rationale. Such hyper-sensitive people are indeed among us. You may have noticed. But I also believe that most people do not have a chip on their shoulders. They are not looking to pounce. They are just asking for respect, and they deserve it.

And again, this is at its heart about power. Are we willing to give up the power to define each other and instead respect one another as we wish to be respected? For myself, chip on the shoulder people notwithstanding, I would just as soon give up the words “politically correct” and indeed say “respectful.”

Yet I want to move beyond this now, because I believe words matter in still another way, a way that many of us may not have thought of. And these are the words we hear, as opposed to the words we use. I would share with you a very personal example.

I have a good friend, now of almost fifty years. A good man. A good human being. We had a crisis about ten years ago. He lives in California and was up for a visit, or maybe we were talking on the phone. I don’t remember. We had a lot of catching up to do. And as we got caught up he mentioned a rather expensive something, I don’t remember what, that he had wanted buy. But it was outside his price range. He told me, “I Jew’d him down and got a great price.” “I Jew’d him down.” I was stunned, and deeply hurt. That, pretty much, ended the discussion. Fortunately, it didn’t end the friendship. He called me several days later to apologize. It was sincere. And, let’s face it, we all say something at some point in our lives that we would give anything to have back.

But I also knew this wasn’t the way he thought or talked. So I asked him how in the world it had come out of his mouth. He told me that some of the people he worked with talked like that. And he’d just … picked it up without even thinking about it. He pledged to think about it in the future, and call his associates on it.

But this is what I mean when I say words matter – not just the words we say, but the words we hear. The words we let ourselves hear. The words we let go by without speaking up. So I would ask all of us, and I definitely include myself, to be conscious not only of what we say, but what we listen to.

And to be clear, by this I do NOT mean that we shouldn’t listen to or discuss things with people who have opinions different from ours. If we shelter our minds that way, we put on the blinders we talked about last month. But I DO mean that words matter. By no means should we demand that the person we are talking to agree with us. But we ought to demand that that the language used be respectful.

A last example of this comes from my own recent experience. I had joined a Facebook group that supported the person I would very much like to see as our next president. No, I’m not naming names. That’s not relevant here. But the people on this page, the people supporting the same person for president that I do, were trashing with virulent invective, that person’s opponent. I spoke out against this, and finally had to quit the page. You can be against a person’s candidacy. You can strongly disagree with that person. But surely we can be respectful of each other…even if we disagree – even if we disagree strongly.

Words matter. The words we use, the words we choose, become an important part of who we are.

Amen.

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