Thursday, June 11

Words and other Picky Shit

"Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind--
even if your voice shakes"
--Maggie Kuhn

Words are sacred to me. I am fiercely protective.

I am not so unlike those few people I have met in my life (and surely all those who I have not met) who respond with wounded and vehement outrage to the use of the word "God" as an expletive or even as expression. You know the ones. "Don't take the Lord's name in vain!!"

It's just like that. I'm a purist.

Call it what you will. Everyone does. Picky. Intolerant. Inflexible. Egocentric. Fine, all of 'em. Probably all true at one moment or another. I would say that I'm big on saying what we mean.

It is not elicited by a particular word. I mean, I'm not one of those who goes "nucular" at, well, that. It does annoy me, to be sure (can you tell I heard it again today, on NPR this time, no less) and makes me long to get those people in front of me, hold them firmly by the shoulders, and ask them to pronounce "new" as in recently purchased, "clear", as in transparent, and then to look them firmly in the eye and say, slowly, and with emphasis..."Okay. Now. Put. Them. Together." It's not exact, but it sure would be closer. But it doesn't bother me that much.

It is not about pronunciation or even definition. No, the place where my teeth start to clench and the hair on the back of my neck stands up is a whole 'nother kettle of fish. My issue is in the casual use of what I call "large" words, often in response to the popularization of them by others, from friends to the media. Let me explain.

Now this may come as a shock to you--it surely does to me--but I am apparently following a theme tonight. I've never done that before. What I mean is that in the three and a half months of writing daily posts (a la nablopomo), I have not once written on the suggested monthly "theme" offered by the nablopomo folks. It's not required or anything, just a friendly prompt to keep people writing or give them something to write about if they are grasping at straws--I haven't needed it, or, more to the point, it's just the kind of thing I rebel against. Don't tell me what to fucking write about, y'know? But here I am, through no intention of my own. Go figure.

This month, the theme is "heroes". This word--hero--bothers me. A lot.

It bothers me because of the way in which no one seems to have any idea what it means, becuase of the increasing cheapness of its use, and because we use it wildly, indiscriminately, and, worst of all (gasp) inconsistently.

It bothers me because like nearly all words that fall into popular usage, it is considered blasphemy to disagree on their usage or meaning, even if those using them don't, as I said before, have any real idea of their definition or appropriateness. Everyone's saying it, so you'd better say it. And you'd damn well better not question its use, either, for to do so would be to insult and degrade the very soul of the person or persons on whom others have bestowed the title.

Word bullies.

You know what they say, the truth is an absolute defense. So let's look at what it means, this word.

The word "hero" is originally derived from Greek mythology and folklore, and refers to the offspring of a human being and a deity. The literal meaning is "protector" or "defender", possibly associated with the goddess Hera.

A few more thorough and current definitions:

Merriam Webster: 1 a: a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability b: an illustrious warrior c: a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities d: one that shows great courage.

The Oxford English Dictionary: 1 a person, typically a man, who is admired for their courage or outstanding achievements. 2 the chief male character in a book, play, or film. 3 (in mythology and folklore) a person of superhuman qualities.

The Free Dictionary: hero - a man distinguished by exceptional courage and nobility and strength.

That seems like enough.

This is the point where it gets tricky. This is the point at which, in order to keep writing, I have to remember my invisible cloak of steel, not to mention Maggie Kuhn's advice. Because it pisses people off if you say that the people they are calling heroes are not heroes. I could just save time and energy and go right to the front of the "Ignorant-and-Heartless-Bitch" line.

Let's put it this way: If I say that I don't believe such-and-such person is a hero, it is presumed that that means that I don't think s/he did anything special or that s/he is worthy of praise. It means that I am not grateful for and/or admiring of the risks that s/he may have taken.

And now I'm angry.

I'm angry because it's a faulty presumption. It is possible to feel all of those things, and still have the word "hero" be incorrect.

Hey, this is what I was trying to tell you. Sacred. Fiercely protective. Remember?

(By the way, the old movie Hero, with Dustin Hoffman, is a marvelous example of exactly what I am trying to say here. I highly recommend it.)

As you probably have guessed by now, the most current subject of my dismissive nit-picking is Stephen Johns, the security guard at the US Holocaust Museum who, sadly, lost his life at the hands of a man who, by all accounts, probably should not have been out on the street, and who surely should not have been allowed to own weapons. Correction--he's not the subject. The media and all of us are the subjects.

Let's get this straight. I am deeply sad at the loss of this man's life. This is a terrible tragedy--for Mr. Johns family, for the museum, for all of us. I am grateful to the men and women who take their jobs and their training as guards for the Holocaust Museum seriously, and who come to work every day with the awareness that anti-semitism is alive and well and with the knowledge that some crazy might choose this day to stake his claim and act upon his rage with deadly violence. I am grateful for all of the officers who were sharp enough and fast enough to stop James von Brunn before he did any more damage.

At the same time, let's look at what he did. He opened the door for an elderly man. That was nice. The elderly man proceeded to shoot him in the chest at close range. He died of his wounds. So help me out here. In what way was he a hero?

For taking the bullet, which requires the assumption that had it not hit him, it might have hit a visitor? Maybe. I can see that, though by all reports, he did not "step in the path" but was the first direct target. For serving as a security guard in the museum, risking his life every day? I can see that, but then we need to be sure to give that honor and title to every guard who works in the Holocaust museum, whether they have ever been injured, and indeed, even if they were not working that day. Or...was he a hero because he died in the line of duty, and when someone dies in the line of duty, we call them a hero. Bingo. (Hint: It's the third one. Plenty of evidence to support that conclusion).

I know, it sounds cold. But it isn't cold. It's not about actions, not about Stephen Johns, not about right or wrong or tragedy or not. It's about words, about "big" words, about taking care with how we use words for fear of falling into a semantic version of "the boy who cried wolf". If anyone is a hero, then what happens to the real heroes? Or are they all the same? I don't think they are all the same (but then you might have guessed that).

And yes, I understand that I'm splitting hairs. That really all we're doing is trying to express the tragedy of his death, and our appreciation for his and his family's sacrifice. What does the word that we use really matter?

It does matter.

Words are like the principles of economics--the more they are used, the more casually they are used, the less they are worth.

Words are sacred.

Hey, at least I don't correct grammar. Now, THAT'S annoying.


ConverseMomma said...

Wow. I've missed you. There is so much to sink my teeth into here. First off, I just heard about that tragedy,and it scares me, and make me sad for us and for humanity. As for this man being a hero, I don't know if his actions make him a hero in the sense of the definiton, actually, I know they don't. But, I think there is a tendency in our makeup to martyry someone, to extoll their benefits when they die a senseless death. I think it is a way that we can name it to try and understand it. Because really, who can understand such blind ignorance and hate.

I sometimes purposely misuse words, but that is because I like to play with them. I think we should get dirty with langauge, bend it, shape it. slap it silly. But, I think you need to respect language too. I would agree that not all people really do.

Great thoughts. I certainly won't stray so far from you next time I take a blog reading hiatus.

Love and peace,

Mark said...

This is one that has been bothering me for quite a while, Robin. All the jingoistic tossing about of phrases about "all our heros in uniform" is like fingernails down the blackboard to me. I could count on one hand the number of service people I've met (I did six years in the Navy and grew up in the Air Force) who joined the military strictly (or even primarily) to serve their country, defend freedom, make the world safe for democracy, etc. Most joined in hopes that they could make enough money to someday go to college or launch some other kind of civilian career. (According to the Navy, training as a torpedoman was great preparation for a "real world" career in major appliance repair - now you know the real reason the Maytag man is so lonely) So why are soldiers "all heros?" (police, firefighters, etc. are a whole 'nother rant) Because they put their lives on the line everyday? Come on - fishermen, loggers, "ice road truckers", paramedics, steel workers, dock workers and even garbage collectors do that. The truth is that when people call soldiers heros it is because it is useful to call them heros. The government calls them heros because they need more of them and they know the nature of the young people and sometimes the money just isn't enough. While they serve, their parents must believe they are heros so that they can believe that God and their country will protect them and bring them home whole. When they die their parents must believe they were heros because it would be unbearable to believe they were just capitalist pawns - poorly paid mercenaries for the World Bank, Exxon, Lockheed Martin, Haliburton. The public at large accepts that they are heros so that they don't have to be distracted from "Lost" or "American Idol" in order to learn about and participate in government, so they can claim ignorance and absolve themselves of responsibility when it is revealed what our government does around the world in our name. The public calls them heros in order to belong. Don't get me wrong - I don't mean to imply that our soldiers are just evil thugs either - I'm saying that they are just people - I know - I was one of them. Don't thank me "for my service" it was my job, it was/is not who I am. I want to talk about a little known and even less discussed aspect of being in the military, the oath of service. The soldier swears to "obey the orders of the President of the United States" and of "superior[s]." It is only a crime per UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice) article 92 to "disobey" the "lawful orders" of ones superiors. I will grant that it is a lot to ask of enlisted people with limited education to both grasp the significance of this and to act upon it, but it is not too much to ask of officers. I fear that many do understand and are more concerned for their careers than they are for the Constitution which they also swore to "defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic." These people aren't heros - but they could be.

OK I've trailed off on a tangent here and don't have the time to circle back around an tie this together - but you can see that you hit a nerve with me and this is but a small sample of my thoughts on the matter - lunch again?