Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Power of Words

The Words We Use How aware are we of the words we choose to use? Writers and philosophers, of necessity, or more metaphorically “ex officio,” should be doubly aware of both the denotations and connotations of words. There is never such a phenomenon as “mere words”, for all language is highly charged indeed. A lawyer or law maker should be many times still more aware of the power of both the spoken and the written word. We are all highly prejudiced and biased in our opinions. This statement needs to be stated and pondered even more often than many others. These thoughts are provoked by the way I find that friends, acquaintances colleagues and I myself use words all too unthinkingly and very prejudicially. For example, I have heard acquaintances use the following extremely biased term of another colleague: “X is an extremely dangerous person.” I found the hair beginning to stand on my neck at such an unthinkingly uncharitable term. I replied: “Does X carry a knife or a gun?” Alarmingly the person I said this to did not seem to get the import of my retort. The word used was so wrong and inappropriate that one might almost despair of the value of education. These comments were agreed to and seemingly accepted by teachers, some of whom had masters and doctoral degrees. I am reminded of my father’s sensitivity and openness to others and his firm belief that education was no substitute for plain ordinary everyday manners and moral conduct. He was so slow to judge others and very seldom criticised others unless warranted. He had left school at 13 years of age in 1926 because of financial necessity and spent all his life as a country postman used to meeting and greeting people of all walks of life. He had learned a lot about common human decency in that time. Other words that I find used too unthinkingly are “bold”or “nice” with respect to pupils at school. “Badly behaved” or “well behaved” I find more suitable terms. The former two words could virtually mean anything at all. Maybe it’s the writer and philosopher in me that is causing me these concerns. I even find myself less likely to use the much abused words like “good” and “evil”. These two words have been abused for years by churches of all varieties and indeed by states of all sorts of political affiliation. It’s so easy to label those we like “good” and those we despise “evil.” Language can be hijacked by both Church and State for control and power purposes. A good writer or philosopher will not let those who should know better use words that are not only unapt but simply wrong. More than that the unapt and wrongful use of words can cover up a moral morass of prejudice and downright properly defined “evil.” Here one only has to call to mind the sickening euphemism coined at the start of the First Gulf War – “collateral damage” referring to the deaths (perhaps “murder” would be a more apt term? This is a question not a statement!). Then, of course, there is the ultimate of all euphemisms coined by Hitler and his cowardly henchmen, namely “the final solution” to refer to the extermination of a whole race of people. There are many more such unapt and wrong uses of words. This is where writers and philosophers and lawyers come into their own, even theologians who question deeply the tenets of their own churches especially as regards to possible prejudices and injustices which are resultant upon badly framed and badly understood doctrines and dogmas, and any teacher or scholar worth his or her salt. Let us be followers not of mere fashions but rather followers of a clear and just and respectful use of language. Words properly and carefully used can help unmask prejudice for the real fear and downright hate it so wrongly is! The photo I have placed above is one I took on Donabate beach summer 2006. This illustrates the proper and apt use of language!

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