Week 658: The Impact of Words

As I read posts on Facebook and listen to newscasts and talk shows, I am constantly surprised at the intensity and harshness of some of the language that people now use as part of a debate or conversation about charged issues. More than once, I’ve seen someone post that the person with whom they are having a debate is an “idiot” or a “moron” to believe as they do. In one post, a woman mentioned her concern about climate change. A man responded that she was ignorant and should study the science of climate and then maybe she wouldn’t believe the “sham” around climate change. Her response was that she thought that having a Ph.D. in astrophysics should be enough.

What struck me about this particular exchange was how the man who responded immediately had to brand this person as ignorant, instead of asking her what it was that made her most concerned. At other times, as I’ve written about before, I’ve been called “ignorant or stupid” for something I posted. It’s always such a surprise to see how differences of opinion have turned into attacks, and I’ve written about this before, too.

I ran across a posting by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which does a lot of work to confront and prevent bias and bigotry, and I really appreciated this article on what to do when we run across situations and people where “jokes” are told that make fun of others, or that deal with negative stereotypes. I enjoyed reading it, so want to share the link here: https://www.splcenter.org/20150126/speak-responding-everyday-bigotry

This all got me to thinking about how important it is for us to bring our mindful awareness to the words we say as we move through everyday life. And, as important, to track our self-talk, that ongoing dialogue we have in our heads, to notice what we say about ourselves and others during these internal conversations we have with ourselves. Speaking from bias or bigotry is a habit that we can unlearn, and becoming aware of when we engage in this kind of language is a first step in training ourselves not to use it.

Part of why it’s so important to be aware of our language is because of the depth of hurt it can cause when we speak without awareness. Also, it offers us the opportunity to choose to communicate kindly and with an intention to understand rather than to retaliate. I listened to an interview recently in which Van Jones, an African American commentator, talked with a white supremacist. Because Van has white relatives and a son who is white, he moves into these conversations with an intention to understand the other person and I was impressed with the conversation these two men had. It was so different from the blaming and shouting exchanges that are so often heard these days.

For this week’s experiment, I invite you to pay even more attention to the quality and tone of your internal dialogue, noticing what words you choose to say out loud and, as importantly, the words you say to yourself but would never say out loud. Also, use this week to experiment with using words that are kind and that move you in the direction of wanting to understand someone who holds beliefs that are different from your own.
All of us hold biases and there are some we aren’t conscious of having or expressing. This experiment can offer a way to become more aware of biases that pop up in your inner dialogue when you least expect them. Taking the time to recognize, acknowledge, and own what you were taught when you were young, or ideas you hold that you are uncomfortable having, brings them into the light of day. Then, you can engage in a process of replacing these ideas and words when they arise, shifting to a more up-to-date understanding of a group of people your family traditionally put down, for example, or a situation that’s unfamiliar to you, or wherever else you may find your biases reveal themselves.
Please remember to bring along curiosity as your constant companion and, most especially, allow any judgments that may arise simply to move through and move on. We all have language we use that we feel bad about later. This is just one more opportunity to be more mindful about that and to generate more moments of choice along the way.

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