Saturday, July 11

More on Words

Yesterday, I wrote about words being too restrictive. About their inadequacy to communicate what we mean in the deepest sense.

Today, I want to talk about the flipside.

It seems to me that the whole mess is made ever more complicated by the power that words hold. The power that we give them. The right words in the right moment are priceless. The wrong words in the wrong moment can be devastating. Which brings me to something I don't get.

For one thing, I don't get the primacy of the physical body. As if it isn't commanded, engineered, and operated by the same organ (which I have to say we don't seem to know anything about, even as we know more about it than ever before) as everything else. Losing control of motor function in one's hand, for example, is really not all that different from losing word retrieval; yet, the former evokes sympathy and the latter, ribbing. Does that make sense to you?

Stick with me. This does have something to do with words. I promise.

Some years ago...well, a whole lot of years a time when I was struggling, someone said to me "Isn't it amazing? If you are physically sick, people send you cards, they bring food, they mow your lawn, they send flowers and cards. And if you are emotionally sick, people stay away from you.". So maybe there's an evolutionary purpose for somaticism after all, huh? I really don't get it.

Which brings me, albeit in a roundabout way, to my point (as Ellen Degeneres says, I do have one). I've been waging a bit of a campaign for years now, but I have to admit, it's been a little lonely.

It began with a professional (and yeah,okay, a bit personal) passion of mine, and the subject of much of my graduate work. Invisible children. No, not the Virginia Bruce or Claude Rains or even Ralph Ellison kind of invisible. Children who are not noticed, not mentioned, passed over. They're everywhere. Any teacher could tell you about them, as much as we don't like to admit it--when you get to the end of your day, there is always at least one child that you just can't say what they were doing, and sometimes whether they were even there. I know, it sounds sad. But it's true. Maybe it's a malady, maybe it's a strategy, maybe it's something else altogether. Whatever it is, it's not the only kind of invisibility.

There's invisibility in being different. In being gay. Or lesbian. Or gender nonconformist. Or being a child of divorcing parents. There's invisiblity in being shy. Or out of touch with the current media or electronic culture. And yes, there's that kind too. And by "that kind", I mean whatever kind you're thinking of. Yup.

But none of those are what I mean. (see what I mean about words?)

My interest is, and has always been, in children whose experience is overshadowed by the experience of others around them, most markedly those who are bystanders to violence and trauma. I am painfully aware of their absence, not only because of the lack of humanity in their invisibility, but also because of the way in which their omission translates into a nearly complete inattentiveness to their unique needs.

But the first step is in words. In changing words. In respecting the validity of other types of pain or violence other than physical. And the first step in making that happen is in changing our language. Words. Words. Words.

Like I said, sometimes it gets lonely. And sometimes I get tired. And sometimes I think I am the only person in the world who notices this stuff--or objects to it. And then I forget about it for a while. Because I have the privilege of doing that. I am both grateful and sorry that that happens. Fortunately (and yes, I mean fortunately), I can never stay out of touch with it for that long, because just when i get lackadaisical, it happens again. Like yesterday.

Perhaps you read the story of Byrd and Melanie Billings in the news yesterday. This is them, with their twelve children:

In case you didn't read about it, I'll give you the Reader's Digest version. Byrd and Melanie lived in Pensacola, Florida. They had 16 children, 12 of them adopted, six with Downs Syndrome, others with drug exposure and sexual abuse histories. On Thursday, both parents were shot and killed in their home, apparently as a result of a home invasion that occurred in the evening. News reports vary, but there were at least eight [possibly sleeping) children in the home at the time of the murders. Now, I'm not making any assumption about the murders--there is a lot of speculation swirling. It doesn't really matter. What I am objecting to are the following news reports:

"The children, who ranged in age from infant to about 11 years old, were unharmed"
Sgt. Ted Roy, Escambia County Police spokesman, CNN

"Eight children were in the home at the time of the shooting, but none were harmed"
Pensacola News Journal

"eight of the Billing's children were home at the time fortunately none of them were hurt"
WEAR-TV, Pensacola

(and just to put the requisite icing on the cake, the spokesperson from the chronically scandal-laden Department of Children and Families says that that DCF "will, in a little bit of time, after the shock is over, reach out to the caregivers of these children and offer them what we call post-adoptive services". Ah. After the shock is over. I see. Florida. Ain't it grand?

So, here's my question. Would it kill us--all of us, including the media--to put the word "physically" in front of the word "harmed" or "hurt"? Of course they were harmed. Of course they were hurt. Probably irreparably, especially for some of them. They just didn't sustain physical injuries.

Sure, you can say "Oh, we know that they mean that they weren't physically hurt". Well, sure we do. Just like the archetypal dismissal of feminist objections, "Oh, when we say men, we mean women too!". Yeah. Sure you do.

You can say "that's just nitpicking." But words are powerful. And knowing what they mean doesn't make it okay. We demand that people are careful with other words that hurt. Why not these?

It's one word, folks. Just one lousy word. "Physically". That's it. How much would it take for us to relearn how we say and write about events like this? We have taught ourselves to say "firefighters" instead of firemen. We have taught ourselves (well, a lot of us anyway) to use the word "disability" rather than handicap. We have taught ourselves to say "African American" rather than any one of the myriad of labels that have been used to describe the people of color whose ancestors are from Africa (which is kinda all of us, but that's a whole 'nother discussion). We do learn. We do change. Can't we train ourselves to put that word in there?

The primacy of physical well-being over emotional, spiritual, mental well-being has reached the end of its useful life. Let's put it to bed. With one small word. Could anything be easier?

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