Words have power.
I once had an acquaintance who justified his use of two of the most vile racial and religious epithets by saying that he applied them only in terms of personal behavior characteristics, and not as a blanket reference to individuals of a particular race or religion. His argument was totally specious, of course; there was, is, no excuse for the use of such appellations, and there are plenty of available adjectives in the English language to define poor behavior. One need never resort to emotionally-charged words with a history of offense and disparagement.
Perhaps that’s why I was surprised when, commenting on the objectionable use of a brand-new belligerent term frequently splashed across the pages of a progressive newsletter, I was roundly trolled and trounced by its readers. I had (somewhat naively, I suppose) expected better of those whose worldview seemed to encompass a wider perspective than the narrowness of conservative thinking. But, almost without exception, each commentor defended her/his use of the offensive nickname, one even going so far as to say that it was merely a “descriptor”.
Same argument, different decade.
Another of these purportedly broad-minded individuals was infuriated by my suggestion that answering bad behavior with name-calling actually served no purpose; that heckling made no difference in the behavior of those so labeled, and served only to perpetuate the cycle of anger. My statement, he commented, was self-righteous. Reading his words, I chuckled, for self-righteous, as well as hypocritical, were exactly the terms I had, in the privacy of my own mind, applied to those who used the offensive terminology under discussion.
But then I wondered: Why was it that these supposedly free-thinking people were defending the indefensible? If my old acquaintance had risen up in their midst and spewed his hateful rhetoric across the pages of their newsletter, claiming justification for applying it only to the behavior of people and not to the people themselves, these same commentors would have bitterly denounced him and banned him from their pages.
Evil, it seems, is only evil when done by other people, and specifically people outside one’s preferred group. Hypocrisy, however, appears to be universal…as is disappointment. I was bitterly disappointed to find that the group with which I mostly align myself– freethinkers, the broad-minded, forward-thinking individuals–were just as hypocritical, unkind, and sanctimonious as those conventional traditionalists who abhor change.
I wondered, too, about the ages of those who defended the use of that new and distasteful “descriptor”. I suspected (totally without evidence, I admit) that most of those who replied had reached no more than their third or fourth decade, if that. At my advanced and advancing age, one has seen and experienced a lot more of the hatred so rife in this weary world, and has learned the advantages of practicing that ancient phrase, “A soft answer turneth away wrath.”
After a couple of mild responses to their provocative justifications for their continued use of the spiteful nomenclature, I sadly relinquished the argument, realizing there was no point. I doubted that these assumedly-younger people had been raised, as I had, with the chiding phrase, “Don’t call people names. It’s not nice.” They had no grounding in simple good manners with which to comprehend my point: that creating a new slang term to represent an artificially concocted subset of humanity was not a descriptor, but in and of itself offensive and intended to elicit a negative reaction in the reader/listener. By using an emotionally-charged term, they intentionally bypassed the logic circuits within the brains of those hearing or reading their stories—and that is, as it has always been, the real rationale for the use of such terminology. It “others”—dehumanizes, demonizes—those whom it references, resulting in the speaker/writer automatically becoming the hero of her or his own story.
For my own part, though, I will always prefer to use precise and exact adjectives to describe individual bad behavior, words with which the English language abounds. Words such as entitled. Or belligerent. Bellicose—I particularly love that one, as I do pugnacious. Rude. Argumentative. Disrespectful. Confrontational. Sanctimonious. Insolent. Bad-mannered. Loud. Aggressive. Lawless. Uncivil. Disorderly. Unprofessional. Abhorrent.
And, of course, hypocritical and self-righteous.
These are words that have nothing to do with race, or religion, or gender. They are words that genuinely describe the behavior, not the person; words that have not been concocted to encompass a belittling physical description.
Words have power, and it is imperative that we use that power not just precisely, but to good purpose. And that purpose is never accomplished by employing generalities, epithets, or incivility in our speech.
If you enjoyed this essay, you might also like the post “Please Stop Using the Term ‘Karen'”, from December 1, 2021.