Handle with care

Op-ed

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It’s amazing how quickly the world “out there” is changing. Not just the technology, or the climate, or the politics; although all of that is part of it too. Not too long ago, it seemed like we all spoke the same language, used the same references, understood what the words meant. There was always a certain style of speaking, of words used, that helped one group or generation to stand out from others, that established a cultural identity. For my generation, it was cool to say things were far out, man. “My Generation” was even an anthem at one time (ask your grandfather). 

Now, however, we have to watch every word we say or write in case someone, somewhere, is offended. That’s the difference, I suppose. In other, perhaps more innocent times, words could identify, but they were not taken as offending or insulting. There were, of course, certain words that could be used like that, but everyone understood that and the meaning was perfectly clear. But now you just don’t know if a given word is “safe” or not. That’s a huge change. Pronouns have become tricky, other words have had their meaning changed, or are the reserve of specific groups and are no longer useable in the former ways.

You can tell I’m being careful about how I write this; and that is exactly the situation we find ourselves in these days. Someone, somewhere, may take offense and put a label on me that may not be fair or accurate: it may even be dangerous. This is a serious issue, as words and language generally are the means by which we communicate with each other and by which societies operate.

Words gain new meaning very quickly and in a very political way, and we are quickly reaching a point where they can mean very different things to different people, which makes genuine communication difficult, at best. As I have implied, even giving examples is a veritable minefield, in which a badly chosen word can lead to an explosion of conflict and misunderstanding.

So let me use an example in the use and misuse of words with which I have some personal experience. Decades ago, when I became a Christian, I, naturally, told people about it. I got two main responses: one was a blank look which said: “I have no idea what you’re talking about”. The other was an irritated “what do you mean? We’re all Christians, this is a Christian country. Are you being holier than thou?” All well and good. But today, and possibly as soon as you read “I became a Christian”, an entirely new response is more common.

In many peoples’ minds, the word “Christian” means right-wing, bigotic, misogynistic, homophobic, anti-intellectual people who believe fairytales without evidence or reason. It’s a label, one applied universally to an entire range of people without any nuance or attempt to grasp realities. We do the same with so many other groups: apply a generic label on people without any understanding of individual differences, or even if the label is applicable to anyone at all.

It’s understandable on one level. We are bombarded with simplistic messages through various media outlets, mainstream and other, and it can take too much time, effort, or simple interest to look into the truth, accuracy, or fairness of such easy labels. It is dangerous and misleading to apply any one label to an entire section of society, and all too often it results in unnecessary division, conflict, distrust, and personal animosity between people who would otherwise find much in common. And all because of a tendency, becoming more and more prevalent, to make words and ideas so sensitive that they can’t be discussed openly and without point-scoring.

Take that definition of “Christian” I gave earlier: how accurate is it? How do you evaluate a label like that? It’s easy for people to adopt a name to give respectable cover to unacceptable attitudes or behaviour. Not all right-wingers are fascists. Christians cannot be homophobic, racist, misogynist, or indulge in any form of hatred or violent nationalism, and still be genuine Christians. Is that my opinion alone? No, it is the teaching of Jesus, the one these “Christian Nationalists”, or other hate-filled people claim to follow. They are not following Jesus, they are disobeying everything he said and was. That is the criterion for assessing the claims.

Labels are dangerous, albeit easy and convenient. But such an easy option in the so-called culture wars only leads to disintegration, division, conflict and animosity on a personal and political level. There are two definitions of “judging”: one is to convict, condemn, find fault with. The other is to evaluate, consider the merits of, or to weigh up the benefits and negatives associated with an idea, an ideology, a belief system, or an individual’s claims. One is easy and quick, the other takes effort. One creates conflict and separation, the other creates tolerance and transparency. Our future together requires us to choose one or the other.

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