Thursday, May 16, 2013

What is in a Word?

We often hear people talking about how words have power.  How the way in which our thought processes, even our worldview, are shaped and molded by the words we use – the words we have available to us.

In my office we deal with word and word meanings all the time.  What one person calls another in the workplace, and the connotations that can be associated with the word or words used, can be the difference between a peaceful work environment and a poisoned one that drives people to do terrible things.  We all know the words I am talking about, though we never say them in polite company.  The “N-word”, the “F-word”, all manner of racial and ethnic hate rolled up into tiny little words.  And of course it isn’t always just races and ethnicities that are the targets of hateful words, classes, sexes, orientations, you name it, if there is a way to differentiate people based on some trivial or inane characteristic, someone, somewhere has invented a way to mock and ridicule those people.

It isn’t just linked to hateful words either.  We attach tremendous importance to words of our own.  My colleagues and I spent almost two years designing a new process for our office.  We created it, almost completely without managerial interference, and we’ve been using it to tremendous success for over a year now.  There is a great deal of pride in the halls of my office when we talk about it.  But… there’s always a but, isn’t there?  We were recently asked to change the name of the process.  Not how we administer it.  Not where, when, what or how we do it, just its name.  The level of defensiveness that has sprung up, over the name of it alone, took me quite by surprise.  After all, they are just words, right?


The truth is, they aren’t just words.  Words embody our sense of identity.  They give us the framework by which we communicate our sense of justice, our hopes and fears, our prayers and our condemnations.  They define who and what we are.  And when some of these words are used against us, or against those we stand with, they can hurt.

The other day, while walking with my youngest son (now aged four), I was moping my sweating and bald head with a handkerchief.  It happened to be a rainbow handkerchief, a holdover from proudly walking in Halifax’s Pride Parade last year.  I hadn’t given any thought it when I grabbed it from among the others in my drawer, to me it was just a way of keeping the sweat from running down by brow and into my eyes – shaving your head in the summer has a few unintended consequences!

As my son and I walked, sweating, down the path, a young man passing us looked at me with a great deal of disdain and snarled “Fucking faggot” as he passed us.  For a moment, I had no idea where it had even come from, until I realized he had been staring at the handkerchief.  When that realization hit, I was momentarily stunned – it certainly wasn’t the first time someone has assumed I am gay, likely won’t be the last – but what stunned me was the hate in his voice.  This was a complete stranger, someone I had never seen before, and likely will never see again.  And he hated me, for what he thought I was.

I was enraged. Not at what he had called me, because even if it were true I don’t attach any judgement to that and no doubt also because, as a mostly straight person, I don’t have a history with that word being used against me as a weapon.  I was enraged because he saw fit to let that hate show, in front of my four year old son.  My boys are being raised to understand and accept all difference – to acknowledge the truth that we are all human beings, and our differences, as much as our similarities, make us unique, cherished and worthy of basic dignity and respect.  It was fortunate for him that I did have my son with me though, as my first instinct (which I have not felt in a very long time) was to react in a physical manner.

Instead, I reigned in my anger, smiled at him and said “Thank you!” and kept walking.  But I am still fuming over it.

It is not the first time I have been the subject of stereotyping, and won’t be the last.  As a privileged, white (pink really), (over) educated, young(ish), straight (mostly) and able bodied male, it is very rare for me to be the target of an “ism” but it has happened, and no doubt will happen again.  But that hate, that level or disdain - that was new.  Even when I have been (in my misspent youth) beaten up for being the wrong [fill in the blank] - I never felt the level of hate in those actions that this young man held for me on the basis of a brightly colored handkerchief.

Ironically, when these things happen to me, all they do is strengthen my resolve to continue the work I do.  As long as there are bigots out there who hate for no real reason, as long as the insanity that is racism/classism/sexism/etc. exists, I will fight it.  In big ways (my career) and in more important ways (teaching my kids) I will continue to do what is right.

So I hear your hateful word good sir.  I hear your “faggot” and I counter you with “hope”.  Because that word, that idea, is more powerful than your hate will ever be.  It will sustain and nurture a generation raised to know that differences are powerful and that diversity is magnificent.  It will light the way forward, while you and your ideas will cower in dark places and wither. 

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