Words in the ears and mouths of the beholder

The teacher in me is having a hard time these days. You don’t teach for 17 years and just turn off that aspect of your personality. Forgive me.

For one thing, I like young people. I like being around them. I like remaining positive and hopeful about younger generations and naively hope they will make decisions differently and better than my own.

But if I have any bone to pick with the younger generation and school administrations (Plumas Unified School District and Plumas Charter School — no one gets out of this one unscathed) and parents it’s this: we’ve raised kids to think that people can have their own facts; we’ve raised them to not have empathy.

And both these things need to stop — but where to begin the slow climb back to civility and civics and citizenship? We need to call them on their words.

Civics. The etymology of the Latin word means roughly a crown of oak leaves for the one who “saved the life of a fellow citizen.”

It starts with words. Words are how we communicate in public space and our words need to be better. More accurate. Less Orwellian. Less conniving. Less belittling.

If I hear two white kids in Greenville calling each other the N-word one more time, I think I’ll scream.

If I hear one more news source refer to neo-Nazi movements as ‘alt-right’ I’m going to lose it too.

I’ve been cynical about words for a long time — maybe since that gutted Clean Water Act of 2003, which weakened the actual Clean Water Act of 1972.

Words change meaning. Intentionally. Words become political. It’s easier to be scared of someone if he or she is an alien. It’s harder to hate someone if he or she is a worker without papers. She might have a family. He might be human.

I think of the words “conservative” and “liberal” and how they’ve gone from being simple terminology to describe someone’s worldview to becoming curse words. Their definitions are allusive. I think “conserve” and I immediately think of conservation of the environment. I think  ‘liberal’ and I think I need a bigger dollop of whip cream in my coffee (don’t judge).

Ambrose Bierce offered a great definition in the Devil’s Dictionary of 1911 when he said, “Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.”

I never thought about how media use words until my first post college job as an editorial assistant at the Los Angeles Times in the early ’90s. We had style sheets. There were words we could and could not use to describe people. Those descriptions yielded influence.



Guerilla Warfare.


The American Revolution was won because American colonists who turned against Britain acted out the definitions of these words. But that’s not how they could be used at the Times. Terrorists are only foreigners regardless of the act of terror itself. “Rebel” and “Resistance” were too romantic for foreigners. “Guerilla” could only be used for developing countries.

I think of this now as the national media struggles to come to terms (pun intended) with words to describe what’s going on in North Dakota. The Standing Rock Sioux and the tribes and peoples joining to protect the land and water want to be called “water protectors.” The media wants to call them “protesters.” The authorities want to pronounce them “criminals.”

At the Times too, I learned the role of description in painting a picture for the reader. I remember a letter to the editor that chewed out the editorial staff for describing African American kids by race, but white kids by “golden curly locks and bright blue eyes.” Small things — a few words — can craft meaning and perception.

Back to the schools.

I write this column after spending a few hours volunteering in the library. I just made December’s displays. Each month I look up what national month it is (did you know December is root vegetable month?), and make four displays that showcase books we have in the Indian Valley Collective Library that reflect the national month’s themes.

As I do this, I am reminded that a parent complained about the library having books about feminism. Now there’s a loaded word. Feminism is the radical idea that women should be treated equally to men — that translates into various things such as equal pay for equal work, equal insurance premiums and price of hair cuts even. Perhaps an equality of household chores and reproductive responsibility?

For me, feminism is kind of like breathing. I practice it but I’m not aware of it; it’s been with me all my life. Nothing to fear, but certainly an anonymous person in Greenville is fearing my breathing.

I am reminded that there are talk show hosts in this country who made it their job to make “feminism” sound evil. “Femi-Nazi” I think was the term one dinosaur of a man decided to brand us. (Yes, I know I just branded him a “dinosaur.” See what I mean?).

Along with being AIDS Awareness Month, Root Veggie Month, Drunk Driving Awareness, and Spiritual Literacy and Writing a Business Plan Month (a great idea for that last week before New Year’s if I’ve ever heard one) is National Human Rights Month.

As I assemble books about World War II, propaganda, the Taliban versus girls trying to get an education in Pakistan, holocaust survivors, the bullying of LGBTQ kids in rural areas, the Civil Rights Movement, Mandela, Ghandi and everyone who dared to live up to their own human dignity — I’m aware that words are dangerous things. For every civil rights tragedy in the world, there are people trying to collapse the humanity of those seeking freedom through words.

Words tell stories.

I am reminded right now of three.

In the National Museum of Poland in Krakow, the modernist wing houses paintings whose plaques indicated that all the painters died in the same year — 1942 — the year painting by Slavs was no longer tolerated in the Nazi regime. The paint was the artists’ words and words are dangerous.

Russian poet Anna Ahkmatova wrote the famous poem “Requiem” in her head in the 1940s and could not write it down until after Josef Stalin died in 1953 for fear of what he would further do to her family or her. It was published in the Soviet Union for the first time in 1987.

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge imprisoned in Tuol Sleng all those people among them who wore glasses. Glasses demonstrated an ability to read too much. Too many words; too many ideas.

Words are important. I am no longer a teacher. I try to instill that idea in my own children and any I have influence over. I tell them to choose carefully. I tell them to be clear in their definitions, to be equal, and to call out words that seek to change the story.

Choose words that make us human.