In an echo chamber, language loses its power

I think evil is real. I also think we need to pay attention to language.

For example: I’m haunted by my memory from a photographic history of Jim Crow I visited in Washington D.C. more than a decade ago, especially the black-and-white image of a man’s scorched body swinging from a rope and, behind him, families eating picnic lunches amid giggling children. Notes on the lynching said some families “asked a blessing” before they ate. I think “evil” is the right word for this.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Really? It was cold the night of October 6, 1998, when two men stayed warm by beating 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, who was gay. For hours, they tortured him. When they were satisfied with their work, they left him for dead, tied to a barbed-wire fence to die alone in a freezing wind. If I search for language to describe Matthew’s final hours, I land on “evil.”

Before the lunchtime lynching, language was at work reducing a man to less-than – less than human, less than us, less than those who thanked God and broke bread. He was “just a…” (You can fill in with the N word.) Matthew Shepard was eligible for brutalities because, said one of his attackers, he was “a queer…just a fag.” Such language is an early warning that evil will follow.

The list of foul terms – from “retard” for a man who endures developmental disabilities to “slut” for a woman who protests stereotyping – is long. All are rooted in our conviction that we are worthy and they are not; we are whole and good, and they are less than we. They are the Other. When I heard a politician oppose immigration reform with reference to “wetbacks,” I heard the pitter-patter of ugliness slipping into the debate. An Other had been found, identified and demeaned. We’re on our way to moral ugliness.

Such regrettable language in political exchanges has gotten easier owing to patterns of redistricting in state after state, including Michigan. According to FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, “most members of the House (of Representatives) now come from hyperpartisan districts where they face essentially no threat of losing their seat to the other party.” The Other has been redistricted away from us. We’re talking only to those who agree with us.

Of 435 Congressional districts, Silver says perhaps 35 are competitive. In the remaining 400 districts we mostly talk to ourselves. And we mostly talk about the Other. It’s easier to refer to a Republican as a “Neanderthal” when all my neighbors are Democrats, or to label the President an “African Muslim” if only anti-Obama folks are listening. It’s easier, but no better.

Sometimes our slander is nearly unconscious. My parents staunchly opposed organized labor. I was an adult before I knew that the term for an elected union executive was “leader,” not “thug.” When I went to work at Coopersville’s Rochester Products well into adulthood, I discovered I’d been misled by my parents’ language. Mike led the union and he was no thug.

Profanity isn’t much to be admired; mostly, it lacks creativity and rarely does it suggest thoughtfulness. But vulgarity itself doesn’t strike me as life-threatening. Labeling people as if they lack honor, or decency, or sincerity, or worth – that’s dangerous. The distance between such language and lynchings and beatings is dangerously short and easily traveled, especially when we’ve been redistricted into sameness.

When we castigate our political opponent as an enemy, and we throw around terms that dehumanize others, we play fast and loose with language that means something. It risks dangerous consequences because it encourages us to demonize those who have different views, who vote the other way. The fact that they differ with me does not make them less American, or less worthy, or less human. It only makes them other – different, not evil.

Almost as bad, when we attribute evil to those who are merely different, we waste a word that needs to retain its meaning. We should save certain words for when we need them. Else we’ll have no way to accurately describe rows of 1,400 bodies wrapped in white sheets, 400 of them shrouding infants and children who were freshly sleeping in their mothers’ arms.

When we call the author of such carnage “evil,” we need to mean it.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Bob Leonard
Sun, 09/08/2013 - 1:52am
Wow. An important message well said. The power of language gets easily lost I think.
Sun, 09/08/2013 - 12:26pm
If Mr. Heyden were truly interested in reducing the use of such word he more be more effective if first he tried to learn why people use those words in the situations he describes. Once you better understand the why then you can identified ways foster change, create new behaviors, lower barriers to communications. It depends on what Mr Heyden really wants to achieve with his article. Does he want more civil discourse, does he want to open discussions, or does he simply want to vent?
Mon, 09/09/2013 - 7:49am
Learn to spell his name, and then you can have an opinion.
Mon, 09/09/2013 - 1:48pm
Cranston, Thank you for pointing out my error. That error should be chastised. Mr. Heyney please accept my apology for my carelessness. I appreciate that you offer your views up to stimulate thought and conversation, for putting yourself and your ideas out there to the public your deserve at a minimum of personal respect in having your name spelled correctly. I apologize for my error in spelling your name.
Sat, 11/23/2013 - 9:50pm
Yeah, you missed it again.
Charles Richards
Mon, 09/09/2013 - 4:16pm
This is very good, and is to be commended. And while the admirable Nate Silver is correct about Congressional districts, the problem of one group against another goes beyond redistricting. There are states and regions without much diversity of political opinion. We have, to a large degree, sorted ourselves into like minded tribes. I suspect that new arrivals in one camp or the other find themselves gradually shaping their opinions to fit in with dominant views. Unfortunately, human beings have a strong propensity to divide themselves into "us and "them". Alison Gopnik, in her Wall Street Journal Mind and Matter column of May 17, 2013, noted that "it turns out that even 1-year olds already sympathize with the distress of others", but then goes on to say that, "the origins of evil may be only a little later than the origins of good.". And, "Our impulse to love and help members of our own group is matched by an impulse to hate and fear the members of other groups." She says, "When and why does this particular human evil arise? A raft of new studies shows that even 5-year olds discriminate between what psychologists call in-groups and out-groups." I share Mr. Heynen's apprehension about our politics, but hopefully our current situation is just a temporary blip in an otherwise positive trend. Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, makes a compelling case that violence and demonization of the "other" has sharply declined over the last several centuries.
Fri, 09/27/2013 - 11:06am
This is an important message, indeed. Without intending to distract from it, I argue that in an article exhorting us to be careful with language the author should be more careful himself. I appreciate the inclusion of "retard" as an example of abusive, segregating language -- but people with intellectual and developmental disabilities do not "endure" them (or "suffer from" them, another common construction); they simply "have" them.