What’s in a word

Words are these incredible creations of our species – they have no form, no mass, no tangible structure, no consciousness, no end, and no beginning.  They only carry meaning that we give them, if we allow them, if we know them, if we let them.  Even though words don’t really exist, except in our own minds – they can have an incredible power.  They can form the catalyst for reactions – in varied amounts, quantities, different combinations, intensities, rate and time of combinations, and so many other synergistic qualities they hold.  Even the absence of words can create unknown effects.

I was reminded of this just the other day – the power we hold in our words, the very innocuous perception that we actually understand how to use words.  It wasn’t until talking with friends on a recent road trip about a recent experience I had on FB that I realized the naive nature of my understanding of words.

You see, it was one of those busy weeks where I was being pulled in many different directions and spending far too much time on FB.  An old friend had posted a meme about Obama being gay – it was one of those social innuendo pieces that depict being gay as something bad.  Now I grew up with the person who made the comment so I was aware of the culture his post was bred in, and although that still doesn’t make the insinuation of his post right or any less demeaning and insulting to people who align with being gay.  I thought it was still an opportunity to try and communicate about the implications, but in doing so I ended unknowingly compounding the very thing that I was trying to communicate about.  I tried to use humor as a way to indirectly open the door to the broader topic, but in my humor I ended up with the same pervasive social innuendo.  I didn’t realize this at first and it wasn’t until after talking with my friends that I realized how my misaligned attempt at communication was just as poorly placed as the topic I was addressing.  I realized I was desensitized to the words and their meaning, even though I was aware of why those words were hurtful and demeaning, I was desensitized enough that I failed to recognize my own inappropriate use of them.   In the end it cost me a friendship, but I gained an understanding.  That understanding was our easy dismissal of words and their power, their meaning and what it means to use them.  How others are changed or effected by our words, how the world moves and operates according to our words, how the meaning behind our words creates our world.  I find no better example of this than the game cards against humanity, where depravity and demoralization are paraded around as humor.  Where race, sexual orientation, culture, abuse, and all manner of horrible acts are brought and laid down as humor – requiring even the not so sensitive person to practice levels of desensitization and acceptance that I feel deadens the most important empathetic parts of our being.  When we are dead inside to these acts, when they are just part of a game for our amusement, what does that say about us – what does that say about the world we live in, what does that say about humanity, what does this say to our treatment of other beings.  If we cannot view our own depravity and abuse against our own race as unthinkable, if we find humor in it, how can we ever hope to achieve understanding and compassion for others, for animals, for ourselves.

This all got me thinking, thinking about the wider context of words and the power they have.  It brought me back to time I spent with a friend of mine, she was an inspiration in my life and introduced me to the subtle word choices surrounding animals in our culture.  The depth and meaning behind those words, the implications in their use and how they further perpetuate the desensitization of the how we treat and view animals.  Pervasive common words like “being a guinea pig”, “don’t be a chicken”, “you are such a pig”, and so many others.  If you sit and think about the meaning of those statements, the implications become apparent.  By using “guinea pig” it implies that animals – specifically guinea pigs – are acceptable to be tested on and used.  We know that they are sentient caring beings capable of showing and giving love, having families, homes, and social structure.  The statement implies that we are greater than them that in some way we have rights to their lives and use them at our will.  In using those words we demean them, we reduce them to something less than they are.

We may dismiss these statements as just part of speech, part of our language and think that they don’t really have those deeper implications.  We would be wrong, for every word we say has meaning and power, they have a deeper implication for our world and those that live in it.  Every word is a catalyst for something to happen, they can desensitize us and cause us to loose sight of what is right in front of us or they can awaken us to greater understanding and cause us to see things new or in a new light.  Of course, with too much desensitization of words – too common use and reuse and reapplication – they loose their value, their meaning and their power.  You might think that sounds like a good idea considering the impact words can have, but if we loose their meaning and power, then we lose understanding and our ability to communicate.  Communication then becomes just a series of words strung together, the emotion and convenience of empathy and fear and love will be lost.  When we talk about the horrors seen by a factory farm animal, the life of imprisonment, the smell, the visceral impact of their lives when we hear about them, and how insignificant they are treated all for selfish pleasures of those who lack the vision or understanding that their meal is more than just food.  By encouraging desensitization of these words we create a culture of acceptance and instead of those sentences creating that sense of harm that they should, they become jokes and humor – they become a vehicle in which those who wish to placate the subject can easily pass by the subject in life or even use it as a way to validate their choices.

This experience settled me, it humbled me and made me realize how inexperienced I really am with the words I use.  How I have so much farther to go in learning and understanding.  How I have fallen asleep in this pervasive culture that rests in the depths of its absurdity.  That my attempts to wake up others is in and of itself a continued attempt to keep myself awake and aware.  That I should not see my mistake as a failure, but see it as a realization that I can then build and grow from.  A chance to bring attention to the broader subject, to bring attention in our own lives of how we use words and to be conscious of their meaning – more so than the surface level context they appear.  By choosing to be aware of your words, you can bring power and meaning back into them, you can take those opportunities when statements like “don’t be a chicken” are used and treat them like a door for more meaningful conversation instead of apathetic chit chat that demeans and desensitizes.