Words Ruin Everything

How bad language builds movements but prevents progress.

Words Ruin Everything

In polite society, behaving yourself is a better hiding place than behind any bush or cubicle. But every once in a while, there's a guy with frizzy hair who doesn't wear socks that comes up with something like E=MC2, which, of course, nobody understands, but it somehow becomes the foundation of our whole understanding of the universe.

"He's on the spectrum," they would have said of him today. If Einstein was alive today, his mom would have donned a puzzle piece bumper sticker that made you feel guilty for making fun of him. If it was on his resume, he would have a hard time getting a job, but if there is indeed a spectrum, wouldn't we all be on it somewhere too?

Personally, I've fallen into one spectrum or another over the years of the attention deficit sort. Most times, it just means I'm going to interrupt a meeting and start asking why they call it "Ovaltine" when the jar isn't oval, but round. I’m no lost puppy, but I have all the symptoms of one except the bad breath. I can still bathe and feed myself without assistance, but thanks to Mrs. The Lorem Ipsum, I don't have to.

The phrase "He has A.D.H.D." assumes a lot of the English language and the polite societies that use the term. It suggests that there is a "D" to begin with. A disorder can only exist if there is an order from which it deviates. Other than a job posting saying, "Acting normal, and other duties as assigned," I'm not sure I've seen one yet.

The problem we have here is not ADHD, an autism spectrum, a head of fried hair, or any theories of relativity. It is simply that we process what something is based on how we talk about it and how we relate to the others who talk about it.

In a context where behaving is the goal, impatience is the disorder. Where creating and entrepreneurship is the goal, those who behave are the ones with the disorder. From different perspectives, the same thing is described under totally different terms. We’re either waging war or defending our country. We’re a delusional presidential candidate with no chance of winning, or we’re Mike Pence.

Change The Conversation

During the 2010 elections, Nancy Pelosi started a war in which her opponents were the only aggressors, from which she was the savior. She was joined by Hillary Clinton, Barbara Boxer, and eventually many others.

It was in the late 80s when her rallying cry was coined. Andrea Dworkin wrote it in a 1989 intro to a book and again in 1997 in her own book. She carried the banner message, which eventually became a prevailing theme. From the Today Sponge to the wage gap, it changed how we talk about women's issues for decades.

It was the War on Women.

Laura Flanders' made it popular in 2004 with her collection of essays, The W Effect: Bush's War On Women, and by the 10s, it was the platform for discourse about the gender pay gap, domestic violence policies, and reproductive rights.

Being "anti-life" is a losing message, and far be it from Democrats to fail to be an advocate for the poorest of all, the unborn. There is no winning strategy until there is blood. If possible, on enemy hands.

It was identity politics at its finest. When Republicans are waging a war on women, it positions Democrats as their only defense.

And it worked.

In 2012, Obama beat Romney with a handy lead from female voters, even if by losing some of the male voters. He may have taken it a step too far with that tan suit, but War On Women line did great.

For some people, the party line put a bad taste in their mouths. It most certainly ended the conversation for those not already sympathetic to its views.

And this is what happens all the time. There is a movable middle, and those who will never hear the compelling argument because the language that is used makes the assertion unpalatable to those who don't already agree with it.

When it comes to issues, language makes our side a matter of our very identity and leaves our opponents with blood on their hands. This works for the middle. We win over the people who already tend to agree with us and lose the hearts and minds of those who might change course if someone could appeal to them in their language. The sharp rhetoric of identity politics is great for short-term wins but fails us for sustainable change. Here are some of the ways that language, however well-meaning, ruins our chance of winning hearts and minds.

War on Women

What seems like a battle for right and wrong is actually a battle of semantics.

When does a living organism gain rights? After it pierces an egg or before it is forcibly penetrated by a tadpole in the wild? Is it correct that birth control is the same as having an abortion? What about masturbation? How about wearing plaid? Where actually is the line?

Are we in a War on Women or simply a Special Military Operation on women? Does anyone ever plan their future in politics by saying, "When I grow up, what I really want to do is destroy all the women?" Other than George Santos, I can't picture anyone saying such a thing. Does the enemy in this war want to destroy women, or do they simply have a view of humans, which at any other stage on the timeline of life is quite normal?

It may be an ideological war, but few see the target of the other side, and because of that, few minds are changed no matter how right the one side may be – and some are pushed further away from change altogether.

Let's talk about some ways language limits our results.

Systemic Racism

Activists every day remind us that your great great great great great great grandparents may not have been so great – and that, now, you're the problem.