“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”
Who said that and what were they smoking? My mother might have sung the phrase. I learned it somewhere and used it for cover when under the word assault of schoolmates bent on picking on me.
Picking on us were the words we used in mid-20th century to describe what today is called bullying. Whether picking on or bullying, it can involve more than words. In my case, I was on the receiving end of rock throwing on one occasion. For others, the experience was or is relentless and involves shoving, isolating and/or implied threats along with taunting words.
I view the environment we’re in today with more than a little alarm. Don’t you find it astonishing that people who take a stand frequently report that they received death threats as a result?
Sending death threats seems to be an equal opportunity sport. Just about any stand or party affiliation can find someone against it who responds by sending anonymous death threats.
Just for the moment I will put aside the possibility that Russia or some other country or a 400-pound person on a bed in a basement is churning social media with fake death threats. We have enough to tell us that if they are, they are not the only ones.
Look no further than the actor who, referring to Lincoln’s assassination, suggested out loud that maybe it was time for an actor to assassinate a President. Then, there’s the comedienne who held the grotesque model of the severed head of the President.
The good news is that no one defended their exaggerated and tasteless antics. The comedienne lost a gig she held for years. Don’t know what happened to the actor, other than a bit of shaming.
Yet, it isn’t enough to condemn the rhetoric of one-dimensional characterizations and stereotypical thinking. Much more lies beneath the manipulation of ordinary words and meaning that changes our understanding of words.
Using language as a weapon rather than a means to find common cause and solutions has grown over the past two decades, starting in politics. One political party discovered that building positive and negative characterizations of people and policy is easily accomplished by using positive words like dream, empower, freedom and choice to describe their views and negative words like cheat, corrupt, decay and selfish to describe the other.
Say once and repeat, repeat, repeat and one group becomes the bright beacon of hope and the other becomes the dark villain of oppression. Never mind that none of it makes sense; it works.
This is only one example. Listen and we hear words that stir emotion instead of contemplation around just about any issue.
Here we are, a nation of 140 characters, sound bites and slogans that defies substance, thought and collaboration.
Here we are — pitted against each other, fighting with simple sentences and separated by a chasm without a bridge of words. We may as well be speaking a different language.
Time to think before we speak
Maybe I’m being hopelessly optimistic, but I think there is also opportunity in examining the words we use if we chose carefully.
I happen to believe that there are many people who don’t want to participate in angry and negative conversation. They are searching for civil discourse that leads to common ground.
Stepping back is not easy in our current environment. Most of us will need remedial work before we attempt to change public discourse in a positive direction.
We need remedial work, whether we have adopted new pejorative meaning for an ordinary word or are simply confused by what someone really intends by using the word.
Take for example, the word description of elite that, in my view has become something different in conversation than it really is. The dictionary definition of elite is a select part of a group that is superior to the rest in terms of ability or qualities.
I have never thought of myself as elite, having never been the best in any group. We can all name elite people in groups. Tom Brady must be an elite of pro football. Einstein must have been an elite physicist of his time.
Nowadays, “elite” has taken on new meaning and, in some cases, is being used to disparage entire groups of people, such as the elite media or elite liberals or coastal elites. Which would cause one to think it is one of those terms of political manipulation.
However, it turns out that it is more than that. Included is the “professional elite” who are teachers, doctors, managers and scientists.
I’m curious. What is it about those that apply the term “elite” and those to whom ”elite” is applied?
A possible explanation is written in the instructive book, “White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America,” authored by Joan C. Williams.
“Williams explains that many people have conflated ‘working class’ with ‘poor’ — but the working class is, in fact, the elusive, purportedly disappearing middle class. They often resent the poor and the professionals alike. But they don’t resent the truly rich, nor are they particularly bothered by income inequality. Their dream is not to join the upper middle class, with its different culture, but to stay true to their own values in their own communities — just with more money. While white working-class motivations are often dismissed as racist or xenophobic, Williams shows that they have their own class consciousness.” (Amazon Review)
We all should be contemplating the meaning of her insights. I haven’t read the book but have been struck by statements like the above and reviews. I have heard several commentators refer to the observation that the “working class” resent the “professional elite” because they are often in a position to tell them what to do.
That working class was my father and mother. I am of a working-class family. I think my education and career has made me a “professional elite.” Did I leave or was I left?
Did I or have we lost touch with those roots because we morphed into professionals that deny the value of our own family and background? Did we escape? Or did we follow a dream of something else?
My guess is that it is some or all the above. But that’s too simple and it’s not a simple issue.
My thought now is that the term “elite” has come, in these instances, to refer to an arrogance that ignores the desires of those that are being threatened by extinction. We’ve heard the call for keeping jobs and we respond with ideas of training.
I’m reading the book and opening my mind so I can join the conversation. None of us are above learning and getting beyond the simple words that never say it all. No one is “elite” enough to know it all. Not even Tom Brady.
Bertha D. Cooper is retired from a 40-plus year career as a health care administrator focusing on the delivery system as a whole. She is a featured columnist at the Sequim Gazette. Reach her at columnists@sequim gazette.com.