Most people remember a few things in particular that their mother or father said to them. One of my father’s admonitions that has stuck with me over the years: “Son, put your brain in gear before your mouth.” Perhaps that one sticks – shared with me more than once – I’m guessing because I too often put my mouth in gear first. Thanks, Dad. I am endeavoring to put the brain first.
Everyone knows the absurdity of the old adage: “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Words are more than just words. In a recent NYT article, Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. wrote: “Words matter. It is difficult to reconcile this deep relationship between word and meaning with a 21st-century culture of using words as if they do not matter.” For the ancient Hebrew, a word cannot be separated from that which it represents. It was forbidden to pronounce their name for God, Yahweh, because it was too holy for human lips.
Indeed words matter. Words have power. Their meaning crystallizes perceptions that shape our beliefs and drive our behavior. Their power arises from our emotional responses when we read, speak, or hear them. Words can build up or tear down. Words influence others, often dramatically. They can build relationships or tear them down. Simply put, language holds massive, colossal power to manifest change, both good or bad. Proverbs 18 in the Hebrew Bible puts it this way: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”
Given the above, it is astounding how casually we oftentimes use words, both out loud and in print. We verbalize all too often without first putting our brain in gear. Racist comments are legion. Some use female genitalia terminology to refer to women. Unsubstantiated rumors are shared as gospel truth. Crudities for defecation and copulation are copiously spewed in person, in print, and in video media as if entirely appropriate for everyone in every situation. On and on.
If one deems it appropriate in the home or work setting to use various language, why would it not be appropriate for any setting? Would there be anything out of order for a pastor or priest to say from the pulpit, “Good f-n morning. How the f- is everybody today?” Or for the keynote speaker at a National Organization for Women to begin, “Hello, bitches.” After all, words are just words. What difference does it make which ones we use? It can make a difference . . . a big difference.
Squaw is a disparaging slang term for a Native American woman born out of white settlers’ view of them as primitive, uncivilized chattel. This was finally recognized years later as Squaw Valley, CA was changed to Palisades Tahoe and Squaw Peak outside Phoenix was changed to Piestewa Peak. Most people now recognize how dehumanizing it is to call a Black person “nigger,” or a Jewish person “kike,” or an Asian person “gook.” Words indeed, INDEED, make a difference.
My encouragement is for all of us to put our brains in gear before our mouths. Which includes me.