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Don't Cheapen Our Words

Posted on October 26, 2013 at 2:40 AM

(Editor’s note: I’m sorry for the lack of articles this week. I didn’t receive any from the other writers, though Farid is working on one. I can’t complain, since they can make as much money taking the dog for a walk as they can writing an article for the site! I had three articles planned myself, but life got in the way.)


By Dennis Stone


The Aledo, Texas high school football team defeated Western Hills last week by a score of 91-0. By all accounts the Aledo coach actually made a major effort to keep the score down, playing his starters for only the first quarter, going to a running game only (no passes), and having the clock run continuously in the second half (no time stoppages for incomplete passes or out of bounds plays). Texas does not have a “mercy rule” for ending the game when the scoring margin reaches a specific level.


In the days following the game the father of one of the Western Hills players filed an official complaint of “bullying.” The complaint named the Aledo coaching staff as the offending bullies. In part the complaint reads “we all witnessed bullying first hand, it is not a pretty sight.” Texas state law requires that the principal of a school that receives a bullying complaint must undertake an investigation and issue a report.




The losing coach had no problems with the way the Aledo team played. "We just ran into a buzzsaw," said John Naylor. "[Aledo] just plays hard. And they're good sports, and they don't talk at all. They get after it, and that's the way football is supposed to be played in Texas."


Progressive legal scholar Jonathan Turley, who used to appear regularly on Keith Olbermann’s “Countdown” show on MSNBC, said this: "It is not unsportsmanlike or bullying to play a game to a lopsided conclusion. It is called life. This is just one of its lessons." Things don’t always go our way in life, we don’t always win, and sometimes the people we engage with in life don’t play along with our desires.


In addition to representing over-sensitivity run amuck, specious accusations like this cheapen the word “bullying.” It’s disrespectful of genuine victims, and allows some to conclude that the whole concept of bullying is overblown, driven by crybabies who can’t handle a little adversity.


Over the past couple of years, since bullying became a hot topic, I’ve seen several instances where the term has been egregiously misapplied. There was the case where two student speakers at a New Jersey high school graduation ceremony made humorous gibes at fellow students and administration personnel. I read the comments, and they were innocent jabs of the sort students have been making for decades. Nonetheless, the two students were charged with bullying and had their diplomas withheld. As of a month later, when I read the story, they had not received the diplomas.


Several school districts have adopted absurd policies that place under the umbrella of bullying things like not inviting classmates to parties, rolling one’s eyes at another student, and using sarcasm. The end result of this type of overreach and overreaction is a regrettable cheapening of what the word “bullying” means.


My fellow progressives and LGBTs have cheapened other words and concepts as well. For example, “hate” and “hate speech.” Time was, hate speech was represented by the words of people like Bryan Fischer, Tracy Morgan, Mel Gibson, the anonymous bigots tossing around words like “fag” and “queer,” and, most notoriously, the good Christians of the Westboro Baptist Church. But now a lot of us consider it hate speech simply to express the opinion that one doesn’t believe in gay marriage. It doesn’t matter if you support all other aspects of gay equality and treat gay people with respect and friendship, if you don’t support gay marriage you are a “hater.”


“Hate” is a powerful word. It generates in my mind images from the civil rights movement, with George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door to prevent blacks from entering, or the vicious police dogs attacking civil rights marchers. It does not apply to the Christian grandma who loves her gay grandson, but who can’t get to the point of accepting gay marriage. “Hate” does NOT equal opinions or words we don’t agree with. It requires a certain emotion and attitude of, well, hatred.



Sculpture in Kelly-Ingram Park in Birmingham, AL., remembering the police dogs that attacked civil rights protesters in the park.


“Rape” is another word that has been cheapened. Rape is a dehumanizing, horrific act. But multiple commenters have used the word to describe the incident on “Glee” where Tina rubbed the sleeping Blaine’s chest with VapoRub. WTF? I recently read a retrospective article by a gay man remembering his affair as a teenager with an “older” man of 25. It started slow, but eventually developed into a fully sexual relationship. The teen totally wanted that, and was actually the aggressor. And yet today he uses the word “rape” to describe the experience. You can argue that the 25-year-old should have resisted the advances of an underage guy, but calling it rape cheapens the word and devalues the experience of the victims of forced, coercive violation.


Those of us on the progressive/compassionate side of the cultural spectrum do our cause no favors when we cheapen important, significant words like these. We muddy the waters and skew the reaction of the wider community to these issues, and we give our enemies a big juicy target to attack. Fox News jumped on the Aledo story, calling it "The Wussification Of America." We pretty much got past 1984 without succumbing to Orwell’s dystopia of distorted language, but sometimes today we seem to be trying to go down that road after all. Not a good idea.

Categories: Commentary

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5 Comments

Reply Yiannis
9:46 PM on October 29, 2013 
So very true Paul... Anyone who says that they have more than a single-digit number of friends, probably only have "friends".

PaulR says...
I'm with you about the word "friend". Now days it seems like anyone you even know is a friend. People with 1000 Facebook friends amuse me. As the old saying goes, if they won't show up to help you when you have to move they aren't really friends.
Reply PaulR
3:17 PM on October 29, 2013 
I'm with you about the word "friend". Now days it seems like anyone you even know is a friend. People with 1000 Facebook friends amuse me. As the old saying goes, if they won't show up to help you when you have to move they aren't really friends.

Yiannis says...
I fully agree with your comments Dennis: but it's not only negative worlds that are cheapened by wrong use or hyperbole: nouns like star or diva, adjectives like great or perfect and verbs like love or adore, also receive the same treatment. I feel especially saddened by the cheapening of the word friend...
Reply Dennis Stone
8:38 PM on October 26, 2013 
Emilie - I re-read what I wrote, and I did overstate the degree to which overt violence is required in order to call it rape. Certainly, taking advantage of someone incapacitated by being drugged or by a mental deficiency would qualify. (Though even in those cases, the actual experience of the rape isn't nearly as horrific as it is to someone overpowered, restrained, and then violently violated. ) I'm going to try to come up with an alternate way of saying what I said that includes those cases.

But here's the thing. Words don't have absolute, inherent meanings. They only mean what we choose to have them mean. The definition of rape has been changing in several ways, and today different jurisdictions around the world and within the U.S. have different definitions. In some jurisdictions the word "rape" is used for a violent coercive act, while "sexual assault" is used for other circumstances. That makes a lot of sense to me.

There was a case a couple of years ago where an 18 year old high school student in Georgia was convicted of rape for having totally consensual sex with his 17 year old girlfriend. He is now a registered sex offender as a rapist. So consider that incident, the incident I described with the teen guy being the aggressor with the 25-year-old, and an incident where an intruder beats and then forcibly penetrates a woman while holding her down. These three situations are not even remotely the same thing, and yet a lot of people want to use the same word to describe all three. That just makes no logical sense to me at all.

neyronrose says...
In the Glee episode "I Do," Kurt said "Vapo-rape" to mean that what Tina had done to Blaine was non-consensual. That was the wording in the show, and commenters took it from that.

A teenager having sex with a 25-year-old could be statutory rape.

It doesn't have to be violent to be rape.
Reply Yiannis
1:39 PM on October 26, 2013 
I fully agree with your comments Dennis: but it's not only negative worlds that are cheapened by wrong use or hyperbole: nouns like star or diva, adjectives like great or perfect and verbs like love or adore, also receive the same treatment. I feel especially saddened by the cheapening of the word friend...
Reply neyronrose
11:13 AM on October 26, 2013 
In the Glee episode "I Do," Kurt said "Vapo-rape" to mean that what Tina had done to Blaine was non-consensual. That was the wording in the show, and commenters took it from that.

A teenager having sex with a 25-year-old could be statutory rape.

It doesn't have to be violent to be rape.