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Topics/tags: Miscellaneous, short, language, rambly

Warning! This musing is probably politically correct, whatever that means.

Words have power.

Anyone who has experienced a hateful taunt, a moving speech, or even a kind word at a troubling time knows the power each word can have.

One of my mother’s friends once created a poster that said, Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can really hurt me [1]. And I think that’s true. Words can break your spirit, make you feel under-valued [2], or just ruin your day.

Some harmful words are intended to be harmful and cannot be used without an intent to harm. Certainly, anyone who refers to me using the k word means harm [3]. But some harmful words are used carelessly or without thought. It stings when I hear people use my religion as a verb that means to bargain or negotiate. But the people I’ve heard use that term generally don’t realize they are being insulting [4]. And it can happen a lot when cultures don’t regularly come together. As far as I can tell, I may be the only person in the town of Grinnell that objects to the use of derogatory slang in the name the Dari Barn uses for the Italian sausage sandwich [5]. Most people with whom I share my concerns about that sandwich are not aware of the underlying insult [6].

I must admit that I also unintentionally use words that are insulting or damaging. For example, there have been times that I’ve used terms that the Romani or residents of Wales might find harmful. I count on my students, colleagues, and friends to remind me when I’ve done so. I then try to improve.

Recently, two Facebook discussions have gotten me to think more about the ways in which the context in which a word is used makes a big difference. In one case, I had complained about one of the College’s dozens of new two-word taglines, Live Vocally [7]. I noted that the tagline seems ableist, emphasizing the ability to speak [8]. A colleague raised a reasonable objection, saying, approximately, The meaning of vocally is clear in a sentence like, Sam objects vocally to the College’s use of two-word taglines. If that use is not objectionable, why is this one? In a different discussion, someone asked why it’s not okay to call week 14, Hell Week [9], particularly since we are comfortable saying Wow, this was a hellish week [10]. Admittedly, the colleagues’ primary concern was that we should focus more on making the week less difficult for the students who find it such. Nonetheless, I will focus on the discussion of language.

From my perspective, both of these cases illustrate differences between the individual and the collective. I am vocal about a number of issues, both figuratively and literally. Calling me such acknowledges that fact. But making it a tagline, as in Live Vocally, makes it an aspirational goal. And, while the intent is clearly figurative rather than literal [11], I expect that it could be off-putting to someone who is unable to speak. That is, it is ableist. I’d like to see us choose better words.

What about the other case? Hell Week is not a slur at any particular group, and I expect that no one takes it as intentionally harmful. There are weeks of people’s lives which are certainly hellish. However, identifying the last week of the semester as hell week in advance of the week creates expectations. Yes, it’s a week that typically involves a lot of work. But not everyone has a lot of work. And some students even enjoy the academic challenge of that week. For example, the students who plan well and scaffold their own work may find themselves less challenged by two or three papers they have due that week. We already hear from many students that Grinnell has developed an unhealthy I’m more stressed than you are culture; we do not need to use terms that contribute to that culture.

What should you take from all this [12]? Language has power. Context matters. Know your audience. But you learned all of that in Tutorial. So, perhaps, remember that All I need to know, I learned in Tutorial [14].

One other thing: If you’re a faculty member, work with your students to help make the end of the semester more manageable.

[1] Yes, I know that the aphorism is never hurt me.

[2] Or not valued at all.

[3] I am fortunate that I cannot recall ever being called the k word. However, I have had people walk up to me and say You’re Jewish, so …

[4] Perhaps they think they are being complimentary. I’m using it as a metaphor for successful bargaining.

[5] The second word is grinder. The first word also starts with a g.

[6] My Facebook comments suggest that I’m not alone in opposing the name. And I hear from at least one person that they’ve finally fixed the name. I’ll need to grab a menu to see for sure.

[7] If I recall correctly, another banner appears to say Live Locally. I’m not sure what that means. Don’t we want our students to go off and explore the world? And would you come to Grinnell if you knew that you’d be stuck here?

[8] There’s a second issue of having enough capital to be able to speak out, which is likely the intended meaning.

[9] I apologize for the profanity.

[10] I’ve been known to say that, and I do tend to say it more frequently toward the end of the semester.

[11] At least I think it is.

[12] When the last paragraph of a musing ends with a question, you know that I was struggling to write my concluding paragraph.

[14] No, not really.

Version 1.0 released 2018-05-02.

Version 1.1.2 of 2018-05-03.