Sticks and Stones

“‘If you’ve been assigned to me, I suppose you must be some kind of a Namer, too, even if a primitive one.’

‘A what?’

‘A Namer. For instance, the last time I was with a Teacher – or at school, as you call it – my assignment was to memorize the names of the stars.’

‘Which stars?’

‘All of them.’

‘You mean all the stars, in all the galaxies?’

‘Yes. If he calls for one of them, someone has to know which one he means. Anyhow, they like it; there aren’t many who know them all by name, and if your name isn’t known, then it’s a very lonely feeling….’

‘Well then, if I’m a Namer, what does that mean? What does a Namer do?’

…‘When I was memorizing the names of the stars, part of the purpose was to help them each to be more particularly the particular star each one was supposed to be. That’s basically a Namer’s job. Maybe you’re supposed to make earthlings feel more human.’”

A Wind in the Door, Madeleine L’Engle

 

What kind of respect should we have for words?

I’ll tell you what I see. Most people don’t even know what to do with words. They don’t recognize their power. They try to shrug off the most powerful tool in the world today – “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Never have I heard such a line of nonsense as that. Nothing is stronger than words, wielded properly.

How else does government work? How do laws? Why is free speech so important, anyway? What happens when everyone changes their mind and begins to use different words? Fifty years ago, gay marriage was inconceivable and impossible. If you died before last year, it was an unreality. But today, in this country, it is real. And nothing physical in the world changed. All imagined structures, conceived and articulated with words.

What is marriage, after all? What creates it? What dissolves it?

What gives us the right to vote? What kept black men and women, and all women, for so long, from that right? Laws, adopted and written with assorted “yeas” and “nays.” Lawmakers persuaded with effectively wielded words.

If we want to protect speech, we cannot discount its power. Its power is nearly endless.

Naming something incorrectly or thoughtlessly is technically a semantic error. But when viewed through this lens, semantics becomes something more than a dismissive hand-wave. Semantics, viewed in this way, is a church, and Naming a hallowed sacrament. As in L’Engle’s story, Naming someone or something correctly bestows enormous power and worthiness. Un-naming – a name incorrectly applied – destroys the soul.

Who gets to name a place? A person? A group of people? A type of person? Whose right is it to wield that power?

What does it mean when people disagree on a Name?

Historically, it means quite a lot. It’s more than a word, when a Name is disputed. It becomes a symbol of an entire ideology.

Only Protestants would call Northern Ireland “Ulster.” Catholics call it “the North,” “the six counties,” or “the northern counties.”

And what happens to the people and places in question, when those names are disputed?

Those places I mentioned, and the people in them, did not fare well, certainly.

All I can say is that it is a failure of epic proportions to be dismissive when discussing what we call a person, a group of people, or a place. If someone disagrees, it deserves thoughtful consideration. Why do they feel that way? What could we have missed? None of us have a complete picture of the world, and we learn from others when they tell us something that we’d never considered before. It’s one of the most valuable things we can learn from getting out into this gorgeously diverse world full of billions of perspectives. And we only get it when we give language its proper consideration.

If you want to criticize someone, use hurtful words to describe them, or sling full-on mud their way in public or private, there is no law against it. But as an adult human who chose to use those words, you’ll have to take full responsibility for them. You don’t get to shrug off the impact of those words as “not your problem,” or “the fault of a weak society.” You said it. You own it. If you call someone a name that you know they hate and makes them feel demeaned, because you think it’s important to be “honest” or “politically incorrect,” you own that impact as well, and perhaps even more importantly, you own the intention behind it. You own the missed opportunities to hear something you didn’t already know.

I’m tired of words and language being dishonored in this way. It’s recklessness, pure and simple – the birthright and everlasting call sign of the entitled.

It is not “thought policing” to expect careful consideration of words and names applied to real things. Words matter. And we should always expect our poor reasoning skills to be corrected.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:1