Words hurt…or heal

I’ve been thinking a lot about words recently…about words and the impact they can have on us.

Those of us who are old enough to remember the wars the United States has been involved in–or whose parents or grandparents told us about them–can remember the ugly names we used to describe our enemies.

Those words were designed to dehumanize those we were fighting…to keep us from seeing them as human beings like us…with families who loved them…who had similar dreams and hopes as we did. And it succeeded–far beyond the war(s). Many of those words were used to describe people from those countries well beyond the end of the “official” war.

The United States is not the only country that did this. Others did as well. The example that had one of the most horrific results was Nazi Germany–with its description of “the other” (handicapped, Jews, Roma) as “vermin,” “mongrels,” “subhuman.”

The sad thing is that we see much of that being repeated today. People fleeing violence and poverty are being described by the current administration as “criminals” and “rapists” who are “infesting” the United States. The truth is that less than 1% of those seeking asylum are people we might fear. The rest are families or individuals who are trying to find a safe place–and who want to build better lives for themselves and their families.

I’m reminded of a book I loved by Robert Heinlein–Methuselah’s Children. It was the story of a particularly long-lived group of families…people who lived long enough that they became resented by those who lived “normal” lifespans. At one point in the book, as the families are gathering to try to find a safe place, Lazarus Long (the patriarch of the family) is watching and reading the news–and shows how subtle use of language is separating them from everyone else and demonizing them…making them “less than” and also someone to fear.

Yet words also have the power to heal and to bring us together. We have to be intentional to do this…to use words that include “the other”…to call out those words that are intended to divide us and foment hate.

It’s our choice. It’s easy to join the mobs that call out for separation…for dehumanizing and fearing those who are different. It’s more difficult to stand for those who have been marginalized…to delight in diversity rather than fear it.

But one brings death…the other brings life.

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