3 December, 2022

Gimbling in the Wabe – On Being Diligent

A friend of mine related a story of how he was talking to his young daughter the other day, and the concept of “hate” came up.  It seems that the little girl had gotten the idea that “hate” was a bad word.  When she asked if he hated anyone, he told her honestly that yes, he hated a couple of people.  Then he added that “there used to be a lot MORE folks, and they’re not worth my time. I’ll probably not hate the other two here soon.”  When she asked him if he hated bad people, he said no, not really, because “bad” was often “an opinion, not a fact”.

I don’t believe “hate” is a bad word, but I do think it is a word that is often utilized poorly.  It is, by its very definition, a strong word, an intense word, imbued with a lot of linguistic juju.  And yet, it’s uttered so flaccidly, so indiscriminately, in our common usage that it’s been left almost powerless, like the little boy crying wolf.  It’s become a blanket used to douse enthusiasm for something (“I hate pretentious celebrities”, “I hate rap music”, “I hate trolls”), something we can easily cast across a wide area with self-righteous vehemence.

Let’s take a classic example.  It’s okay to hate school yard bullies, because bullies are bad, right?  But isn’t it really that we hate that some kids are bullies, and that bullying is bad?

So what?  What’s the difference?  The difference is in whom or to what we attribute the wrath of the word “hate”.  Who or what we taint with the word “bad”.  We hate the kid who bullies – but what do we know about him or her?  Is the boy who bullies held to some unobtainable standard at home, so he feels the only way he can bolster his own self image is to be “successful” at cowering kids younger or weaker or more vulnerable than he is?  Does that girl who bullies others by taunting or ridiculing get told by those she loves that she’s ugly and stupid, so that becomes the only way she can relate to others?  Does the kids who kicks or hits or pinches or punches see that happen to others in his own life, and he’s learned that’s the way to survive, to conquer those beneath you in the pecking order and to fight back against those above you?  Has he been taught by a culture, an ethic, that he must prove himself and not back down?  Does the kid who behaves in socially unconscionable ways driven to it by imbalances in her very body that are in no way of her making?  Even those kids who are just plain mean – we can still hate what these kids do, but they themselves do not necessarily deserve our hatred, not without knowing more than what plays out at recess or in the crowded hallway.  To take the easy way out, to use the blanket sentiment of “hate”, to lazily cast the mantle of “bad”, merely perpetuates that sense of personal deterioration and does nothing to address the root issue, which is that some kids lash out in inappropriate ways.  In order to effect any change, we must first use our words to truly identify what’s at stake, even though that might not be easy, or comfortable.

And it’s not just “hate”.  We use so many words indiscriminately.  A while ago comedian Louie C.K. was the host of “Saturday Night Live”, and in his opening monologue he took exception to our society’s casual use of the word “starving”, as in “I’m starving – I haven’t eaten in hours!” rather than simply stating that you feel hungry.  He went on to say that the use of the term “I’m starving” is offensive.  “Don’t say that!  Because some people are starving, and they don’t say it. You never see a little kid in Africa with his ribs showing and he’s like, ‘I am starving right now. I’m, like, literally starving to death. It’s, like, annoying.’”  Of course, Louie got his laughs – but he also got his point across.  To be starving is really no laughing matter.

So what?  Why does it matter if strong words are diluted with casual use?  Perhaps nothing.  Perhaps it’s just another tempest in a teapot, and I certainly am not going to start a soapbox campaign about the “proper” use of individual words.  I’m not that much of a killjoy.  But I do believe if we don’t have a healthy respect for the words we use, or if we’re not diligent in using correct words appropriately, then we risk allowing the same lassitude in words being used AT us.  We stop paying attention, and that’s dangerous.  That’s the first step towards being manipulated.

Suddenly, we start believing that without a Sleep Number bed, there’s no way we’ll truly have a good night’s sleep (never mind that our ancestors slept on the ground, on pallets filled with straw or rushes or moss before feathers and foam and memory foam and cooling memory foam).  Or that our kids will never be able to learn adequately without an iPad (as if learning is tied to a device).  That if you’ve had a hip replacement, and experienced any pain since, then you may be in for a huge settlement because it’s somebody else’s fault, dammit!  That you ladies need to use anti-aging cream to look years younger, and not be subject to the embarrassment of appearing older than your husband – because it’s all a competition, right?  That it truly is whether you win or lose, despite how you play the game (second place is for losers, they obviously didn’t want it as much as we did, God was on our side).  That if you’re still sad after taking meds for depression, that you should be taking even more meds – go ahead, talk to your doctor about it.  That if you’re a man, you need the biggest, baddest truck to haul those trailers full of logs or beds full of boulders or to suddenly veer off into the wilderness and splash through rivers or climb up roadless mountains, just for the hell of it; or to be safe in any vehicle you need a foot activated back door release, or a rear facing camera, or automatic parallel parking (because it’s HARD to parallel park, dammit!) or a GPS that will magically find you an underutilized, scenic road in the midst of a traffic jam.  That those with the most stuff, and the most expensive stuff, win.  Winning!!!

I don’t mean to suggest that one must be constantly, unflaggingly vigilant against the inappropriate and oh, so tragic misuse of words in order to stave off the dastardly effects of manipulation in the media.  That’s swinging the pendulum way too far.  But I do believe that the more aware we are of the words we use and how we use them, then we’re stepping in the right direction.  I do try – TRY – to hold myself accountable for looking discernibly at the world, and then, especially, with how I interact with and impact the world with my words.  Like anything else, it takes practice, and I would not hold myself up as a shining example of “how it should be”.

But at least I am trying.  And I am also trying to recognize, and acknowledge, when I see or hear or read others who also are cognizant of what they are saying; or to recognize and even say something when I see or hear or read words being used sloppily, lazily, in order to assert something that simply is not so.  To speak out when words are presented as facts, although they are, in truth, merely opinions.

But I’m not going to go overboard, either.  I’m know I’m not the arbiter of literary justice, nor do I expect anyone to live up to my standards, such as they are, just because they’re my standards.  I’m not going to become a grammar nazi or elitist snob that thinks she’s better than everyone else.  I mean, gads!  I just hate people like that, don’t you?