Finding balance in the second half of life

Words Mean Something

In Community on January 24, 2011 at 6:51 pm

“This bag is compostable,” I said to my spouse-ish one. I wanted him to know that our favorite local coffee shop, which is pursuing a fairly radical zero-landfill goal, had changed their coffee bags.

“Not for ours,” he said.

“What?” I didn’t know why we couldn’t compost a bag.

It took us only a little while to figure out that when I held up what looked like a brown paper bag and said “compostable,” my SO’s brain translated to “recyclable.” And he knows that our recycling resource won’t take kraft paper.

“See?” he said, when we’d figured out our miscommunication. “Words mean something.”

Words mean something, I said to myself in a church meeting the other evening. Someone referred to a person who attends our church but is not a member as an “adherent.” I was struck by the word—it isn’t part of our usual vocabulary, it seemed.

I brainstormed alternatives (I’m not always an attentive meeting participant): guest, visitor, hanger-on, groupie, advocate, disciple, transient… and at the end of the list, I said to myself, “adherent” is exactly right. We may not know whether they share our faith or proselytize on our behalf: “disciple” is too much. They’re valued members of our community: they’re no longer “visitors” or “guests.” They’re not “groupies” because they are full participants. Whether or not they are members, “adherents” are people who have stuck with our church community.

The care taken by this community to find the right term for people who have joined us in all but an official, administrative way reflects the desire to welcome, to affirm, to include. The word chosen reflects the reality we look to create together.

And that’s the conclusion I wish more conversations had led to over the last few weeks. It wasn’t productive for people to argue about whether there is a straight line between Sarah Palin’s crosshairs map and the shootings in Arizona. And I don’t know whether it’s possible to measure the effect of overheated debate, violent metaphor, and partisan vitriol on a disturbed, armed individual.

And, frankly, it seems about as interesting as trying to figure out who really started the fight among my three kids in the back of the Taurus station wagon in 1994. If we all know we’ve been failing at having real dialog, as both speakers and as listeners, let’s all work to do a better job, starting now.

The larger question, it seems to me, is whether we can recognize that “words mean something” in the shaping of our future together. Can we develop a vocabulary that bridges divides to define the world we can agree we’d like to live in?

Honesty and substance are prerequisites, of course. I saw last week that Politifact had named “government takeover of health care” as the number one lie of 2010 because… it wasn’t true. And compare these names: “Affordable Health Care for America” versus “The Repealing of the Job-Killing Health-Care Law Act.” A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but who would know both of those pieces of legislation are attempting to address the same thing?

Those examples reflect my biases, but I make no claim to the higher ground for progressives. Seems to me that insults directed at you are more memorable—because more painful—than insults that you happen to agree with. So I don’t trust my judgment about the honesty or willingness to engage on substance of the either the right or the left.

I read an article in the Wall Street Journal at least a decade ago that talked about the dangers of jargon in the corporate world. Jargon is exclusionary, the author argued. When words mean something other than what they might appear to mean, and when new words are manufactured, you create a company—or a country—in which there are insiders and outsiders. You’ve made it more difficult to know whether you’re having a meaningful exchange. When someone says “dog,” for example, you need to know whether they’re referring to a failing program or a golden retriever.

It’s jargon that’s also often right next door to propaganda. What’s the image called to mind by “alien”? By “immigrant”? How is an “injured soldier” different from a “wounded warrior”? If I call my neighbor Doug, who hunts deer, a “gunman” or a “shooter,” how will my relationship with him change?

What if, instead of metaphors of violence and conflict, our metaphors were creative and harmonious? “Kitchen table” instead of “war-room,” a “pantry” instead of an “arsenal”: I’m both more comfortable and more optimistic with images like those.

Words mean something to all of us, together, in community. It’s not enough for us to use words carefully in our own heads, in our families, with our neighbors, in our churches, in our political parties. If we use words only to solidify our own points of view, we’ll soon clog our democratic arteries. What would happen if “help me understand what you mean by that” tripped off our tongues as often as “you lie”?

We need words to acknowledge our differences without judging them, words to find our common ground. Our collective ancestors found common ground—although it wasn’t easy—when they collaborated on the preamble to the Constitution, when they listed as our common goals a more perfect union, justice, domestic tranquility, common defense, and the blessings of liberty for us and our posterity.

Words will describe—and therefore help us to shape—the country we want to become, the world we want to become. And every word means something.

–Lois Maassen

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  1. Great perspective, Lois. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I believe the knowledge that words mean something is known – but there is a problem with our hearts – we don’t choose wisely, because, often, we don’t care whom we are hurting. Has something gone wrong with society or has it always been this way?

  3. Of course you’re right, Joy, that, at least theoretically, we know that words mean something. I know I can use reminders, though, because it seems like the environment encourages sloppy communications. But your question is a very important one, and I wish I had the answer. Three possibilities that crossed my path in the last day or so: Yesterday I heard a lecture about the rise of narcissism in America, which encourages people to think that their own individual good is more important than anyone else’s individual good–or any common good. Last night on NPR’s “The Story,” I heard a retired woman from North Carolina who’d worked in public health say that she thought it was fear that made people so defensive about their own self-interest. And this morning my husband told me he was thinking about the effect of new communications on “the commons,” which made me wonder: Our media lets us communicate on a scale that is impersonal–as compared to gathering around a physical commons or a town square. We’re quite likely to be talking to and about people we don’t see and don’t know. Is it possible that the scale of our communications has outstripped the scale of our capacity to be in real community?

    I’m midway through HBO’s John Adams series, which has reminders that people have argued and misunderstood and insulted and worked against each other for a long time–history is full of proof. But it does seem that in the beginning of our country, anyway, there was a much stronger awareness that what they sought to build was a whole that accommodated rather than eliminated the differences among the parts.

  4. It is an interesting time in history isn’t it? We are becoming more detached to one another because of the very technology I’m grateful for – I wouldn’t be able to have this discussion with you without this technology. And, yet, as a society we are distancing ourselves from empathy and compassion and finding it okay – through language – to do so – because we can find our “camps” online and stay in them. I can’t believe the vitriol that I read on Yahoo’s comments to daily news articles. One of the problem’s is with leadership – metaphor is and always will be a powerful, powerful tool. The metaphors being used today are vicious – the “framing” just uncontrolled falsehoods – and it’s coming at us from everywhere. As you say, our media allows this. What are young people supposed to think? I can’t blame them for checking-out of the so-called, and possibly lost, public domain. They don’t know what to think. Is there a term for post-post modernism?

  5. […] Of course perfectly lovable people have the bad habit of letting the water run while they brush. Surely something careless tooth-brushers might do could redeem them. And I really doubt that my friend meant what he said. […]

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