I recently caught myself using words I really did not understand clearly when I was using them. Well, this happens to me a lot in the English language since it is not my native language. But that aside, I wrote a first draft of a research paper on the topic of immigration and found myself using words that are currently circulating in the news on both sides of the political aisle. It was not so much that I did not have a definition for the words I was using. The problem was that I just used them to describe a situation that I had yet to discover.
Using words that the media repeats over and over again, words that politician use in campaign speeches, and words that become popular some other way, can all be problematic in social science writing but it is problematic for all of us.
Words are important. They define, clarify, and create reality. In fact, we create our whole world with the words we use. We can feel physically but we talk and think about it with words. I want us to be aware of the words we choose to convey what we want to say. Depending on the words, the perspective we have on reality changes. The problem is, sometimes we don’t even know what we want to say, when we start talking.
We usually talk to someone and with someone, even when we just talk to ourselves, and even when we just think it in our heads. This makes the talking and “world creation” an intersubjective exercise. So, we really live in a world we understand through social interactions and communication at least as much as we live in a world that is based on physical realities.
When a fallen tree blocks our road, we have no choice but to pay attention. We should also pay attention when a word blocks our perception and hinders us from moving forward, or when our words create mental road blocks for ourselves and others.
For example, shall we call a woman who was assaulted by her partner a victim or an accuser? I recently read a wonderful review of a talk by Jackson Katz on the language of gender violence (http://sites.middlebury.edu/middmag/2012/03/15/gender-violence/). The choice of words defines what happened and happens next. This really made me think. Calling a victim an accuser changes the perception completely. A beaten woman becomes a “person not to be trusted”; being hurt becomes real only when it can be proven.
Another example would be the word “crisis” in “refugee crisis”, a very important global issue (or rather a combination of issues) and a word that is circulating the global communication channels many times over day after day. Refugee crisis is mostly understood as a crisis brought on by the fact that (millions of) people have to leave home to find a temporary or permanent alternative home. But the combination of refugee and crisis puts emphasis on the refugees as the source for the crisis and not the underlying causes that create refugees in the first place. Furthermore, Europe for example, has a refugee crisis not so much in terms of numbers of refugees coming but in terms of political will and lack of resources dedicated to immigration and global relations. Perhaps Europe really suffers from a solidarity crisis.
How about the words “fake news” instead of the words “lies” or “false statements?”
I invite you to think of other words that you heard or hear all the time that strike you as odd, or words you use but never really examine, and please leave your comments. I cannot wait to see what you have to say.