The Words We Use Often Affect Others

By Kathy Ivey, January 22, 2012

You may have read the recent articles by members of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society, along with the responses by many community members — both lay and clergy.

The dialogue is refreshing in that all writers are respectful in their comments yet rooted in their individual perspectives. My hope is that we are all learning more about one another and that we are intentional in our rejection of the “us versus them” mentality that permeates too much of our culture.

My goal as I participate in this endeavor is not, as some might think, to convince anyone of the veracity of any particular point of view. My intention is, to provide food for thought and to give others who share my perspective the sense that they are not alone in their thoughts.

I am grateful that Hank Zumach approached Tribune editors to make this column possible. I appreciate that the editors saw fit to give space to the column. I’m thankful for each reader and each writer who responds to the ideas we present.

We are learning that very young children know a lot more than was previously thought. By the same token, those of us of a certain age are capable of grasping new ideas as well as any twenty-something.

It is also empirically evident that society as a whole matures over the centuries so that what may have been commonplace in the Middle Ages, for example, would be unthinkable now.

Hopefully, in most parts of the world, the Spanish Inquisition would no longer be possible. Hopefully, humans will not perpetuate another Holocaust, although in recent years one could point out many horrific instances of genocide, such as in Rwanda.

What is much more difficult to grasp is that, even now — even among people of seemingly good will — some of us perpetrate discrimination against others over religious differences. I am not speaking of the rancor between Muslims and Christians that besets society but of the more subtle decisions we make daily when going about our lives.

Here is a recent example. Unitarians, like Quakers, often call their worship space a meeting house. Yet in casual conversation among friends and acquaintances, as a Unitarian I will refer to my Sunday activity as “going to church,” not that I think of it as such but because it is easier for me to do so than to explain why I don’t think of my place of worship as a church.

This small, insignificant change in my language makes a difference in how I feel, however. Many of my fellow Unitarians have expressed the very same feeling, that of being other than truly accepted for our religious views, because the terminology we use is different from other religions.

Wouldn’t it be preferable for all of us to accept “meeting house” without comment, knowing that in the context of the conversation, the term for the speaker refers to a worship space.

Our Jewish friends do not go to church on Friday at sundown. They go to a temple or to a synagogue. Our Muslim friends attend a mosque. Would that we could refer to these buildings correctly, so that those who are Jewish or Muslim or whatever faith know that we care enough about their religion — and about our religious diversity — to use appropriate language.

The language we use reflects our inner thoughts. Have we learned nothing from the women’s movement and the struggles for racial equality? Our words matter. How sad that we have come to a time when political correctness is a subject of derision, when in fact all the words and phrases lumped into that simple term keep us in loving relationship with one another. I hope we can all become more politically correct.

It takes so little effort to refine our vocabulary ever so slightly so that we honor our religious differences. We can learn to do so. The adage that an old dog can’t learn new tricks is, frankly, an excuse to be lazy.

Any of us can learn new ways of thinking about the world around us. I hope each of us, including myself, take it upon ourselves to become more aware of how our language, even in casual conversation, affects others.

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