What Can I Do: Part 4 (or just one more)

Do you call those without housing “the homeless”?

Do you talk about “entitlements”?

When someone commits a crime, do you respond with “thugs”?

James Deke Pope, who has served on the Community Advisory Board of Memphis’s Africa in April, suggests we pay attention to the language we use and change it if necessary. Mr. Pope attended the race and power workshop at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral last weekend, which I wrote about here. At the end of the gathering when the time came to offer comments, Mr. Pope suggested we quit saying “police force” and rename them “peace keepers.”

Can you feel the shift that occurs with that change?

Another reaction might occur too. Maybe you don’t fundamentally agree with the implication of the change. “Well, they aren’t peace keepers. They’re enforcers of the law.” As they say, it’s not just semantics.

Whether you see reactions as “riots” or “uprisings”—another Mr. Pope suggestion—will, in fact depend on your world view. The point, of course, is to be aware of your world view and use language accordingly.

I’m sure Mr. Pope’s suggestion resonated with me because I am a writer. I deal in words. But the truth is, we all deal in words. Every day. We choose how to characterize something. If you share my frequent laziness, you might go with the flow and use whatever words everyone else is using. Or you might roll your eyes at this focus on words as political correctness. (The Tennessee legislature so objected to a non-gendered pronoun they’re holding hearings on it.) But remember the shift from police force to peacekeepers. It’s not just words. Beneath the words lie positions. We should all respect ourselves well enough to think about whether our words properly reflect our positions.

If you believe there is no such thing as a monolithic bloc known as “the homeless,” you might want to say “men and women experiencing homelessness,” in recognition that this is a time in a person’s life, not the person.

If you believe that those receiving assistance paid taxes for many, many years before needing some help, you might not want to call them “entitlements.”

If you decry broad brush racial stereotyping that effectively dehumanizes people, “thugs” might not be your go-to word.

You probably have your own suggested word changes. Mine, obviously, come from my own world view and life experiences. Words. Help me to thoughtfully set them adrift in the world.



"entitlements", "thugs", genderless pronouns, language, political correctness, the homeless, ze

Comments (10)

  • You bring a calm, rationale voice to a crazy, highly charged discussion. When I read your ideas & words I feel reasoning is a reasonable way of dealing with deeply difficult problems and positions. Your posts are making me mindful of all the assumptions and positions I hold without hardly thinking about them.

    • Thank you so much. I really appreciate your comment. Posts like this aren’t easy for me to hit “send” because it is so highly charged, so when you say they sound calm and reasonable, that’s like water in a desert.

  • You are absolutely correct. The words we choose do influence our perceptions. “Earned benefits” or “social insurance” create a different impression than “entitlements.” One term I try to avoid is “the poor.” I try to use terms that put the person first, such as “those living in low-income households” or “people currently experiencing poverty.”

      • I have not worked for pay enough quarters to be able to collect retirement benefits on my own record, but will collect under my spouse’s record. I always felt that my being able to collect Social Security was recognition that all the unpaid/volunteer/labor of love work that I have done in my life was a societal good. I’m sad when so many want to cut benefits. We each contribute to our democratic society in our way and owe to each other a decent share in the fruits of that society. Whatever happened to “the common good”? (As you can see, I am the anti-Ayn Rand.)

        • I love that. It is a recognition that “unpaid” work is valued work that contributes to our social cohesion. As to being anti-Ayn Rand, I once read a flyer tacked on a telephone pole advertising a meeting of the socialist society and thought, hunh, look at that–I might be a socialist.

  • This is a wonderful post, Ellen, as it’s very important to consider the language we use and what we name someone or something. Did you see I posted the review of Writing Our Way Home on my blog? And on Amazon and Goodreads as well.

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