I grew up with devotedly Christian parents who took me to church every Sunday. As a five-year-old, I would sit in the pew, mystified, as the ushers passed around the offering plate. When I asked what the preacher did with all that money, my parents told me that we didn’t give our money to the preacher, we gave it to God.
Oh. Trouble was, I’d learned in Sunday school that God is a spirit, so I couldn’t figure out how the money got from the offering plate up to God’s spirit . . . and what God did with the money once he had it. After pondering the question and coming up clueless, I learned about the Old Testament’s burnt offerings . . . and had a eureka moment. The ushers, I figured, had to take the money outside and burn it. That way the smoke went up to heaven, and God could breathe it in.
I sometimes feel silly when I think about things I used to think, and more than once I’ve wished that adults would simply tell literal-minded children exactly what they mean. But we often fall into word patterns that can be confusing. Sometimes our verbal shorthand can be deliberately misleading, even dangerous.
In a recent Sunday edition of this paper, a proponent for embryonic stem cell research called his position “pro-cure.” I gaped when I read that term, because those of us who promote adult stem cell research (which is more effective and preserves the lives of unborn children) are not only pro-cure, but pro-adoption and pro-life. But the argument will not advance constructively if we resort to counting up our “pros,” so we’d do well to center the debate on scientific and moral grounds.
Over the years, I’ve learned that some words bear the accumulated griefs and injustices of generations. These words are like uranium atoms—the smallest word can, when split by an expert, be a source of tremendous heat. We must use these words with caution . . . and we must respect those griefs and injustices.
After the horror of September 11, 2001, President Bush delivered a speech that polarized the world. Unfortunately, Bush called the war on terror a “crusade,” a word that cannot fall upon Arab ears without being accompanied by images of relentless waves of “Christian” knights who raped, pillaged, and murdered Muslims a millennia ago. Arab groups who might have been sympathetic to our situation were incensed by the word “crusade” and reacted with vitriolic demonstrations.
What seems like ancient history to us is not so ancient in the Middle East.
I recently watched the movie “Conspiracy,” a film based upon notes found in the filing cabinet of one of Hitler’s S.S. officers. The screenplay centers around a historic meeting of Hitler’s top men on a snowy day outside Berlin.
The meeting’s purpose? Twofold: first, to find a way to rid Europe of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children being detained in work camps and ghettos; second, to teach these leaders that the word “evacuation” would soon mean “extermination.” Most of Hitler’s men accepted this adaptation of language with chilling nonchalance.
We all use words to communicate. We call those who are especially gifted in the art of using words for persuasion and/or evasion “diplomatic.” Any husband—mine included–knows that diplomacy is called for when his wife asks how she looks in a new dress. But even the most skilled diplomats are often blind to the connotations words can carry. When stumbling upon an offense caused by apparently innocuous language, we will do ourselves a favor if we ask for help in understanding.
I’m active in an online discussion group composed of novelists. A few years ago we were discussing the creation of African-American characters, and one of our Caucasian members mentioned that she’d been raised to be “colorblind.” I thought her statement perfectly innocent—she was trying to say that she’d been taught to think of people as individuals, not as members of a specific race.
But the discussion quickly became more heated, with our African-American members showing signs of hurt feelings and even offense. Bewildered, I went to an African-American friend and explained the problem. “Why would the word ‘colorblind’ be upsetting?” I asked.
“Because,” he replied, “if you don’t see my color . . . you don’t see me.”
Another eureka moment.