We have become a nation that ignores language. This is thanks in part to text messaging, corporate names and logos with intentionally misspelled words, and the unnecessary promoting of science and math over English and liberal arts as if we could not promote the sciences and the liberal arts. The only times we seem to pay attention to language are when it’s time to write a college essay, craft a wedding invitation, or engage in a political correctness battle. Only then do we give our words the thought they deserve. Remember the old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” It is true that words will not break our bones, but they can break our hearts. They can break our spirits. Words can hurt us, wound us, and scar us. We remember the playground taunts from elementary school. We remember the words of family or friends that made us feel unworthy or unloved, the words of teachers or colleagues that made us feel stupid or destined for failure, and yes, the words of clergy or church members that made us feel sinful or like a perpetual outsider.
Words also uplift and inspire us. We remember the written and spoken words of encouragement, praise, and comfort from teachers and supervisors, coaches and clergy. We know how good we feel inside when we find the right words to express at the right time for a friend or a complete stranger who is grieving or simply having a bad day. As people of faith, the words of our scripture, hymns, and worship liturgy can bind us together or rip us apart. As Americans, we learn of the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution which gives us the freedom of speech. We are guaranteed the right to speak and write in order to express our opinions, to protest, to worship, and to put words to our feelings and desires. In theory, any person can say almost anything at any time as long as it does not cause a riot. I say in theory because each of us places limits on the words we use with certain people and in certain contexts in order to avoid conflict, reprimands, or hurting others.
Let’s take, for example, the f-word. I have friends who view the use of that word as offensive and some who even view its use as sinful. I have other friends who use it as often and as easily as they would say heck or forget you. As for me, I have no problem using the f-word but it’s not a word that comes to mind on a regular basis. Do I have a right to use the word? Most certainly. Should I use it without concern for the beliefs or feelings of the person who will hear it? Most certainly not. I try to base my use of the word on context and particularity, on how I believe the hearer or reader will feel when I use it. When my perceptions are wrong, I am thankful when the person trusts me enough to share her feelings and the reasons behind those feelings. Even then, I may not completely understand and I may unintentionally use the word again. I am human. I don’t know everything or how everyone will interpret or feel about what I say. All I can do is to try to express myself in ways that fit the time and the audience and most importantly, that cause the least harm and do the most good.
Here’s another example. Having lived in the southern part of the U.S. for several years, I have become comfortable using the word “hon.” “Thank you, hon.” “That’s okay, hon.” I say it to women, men, people younger than I am and people older than I am. It is simply a way to show affection or to soften the impact of certain statements. One day when I was serving as a chaplain, a colleague asked me if I realized how often I used the word. She noted that I had used it in our conversation several times that morning alone. She also cautioned me that there were people in the hospital who got extremely offended by the word. “Really?” I said. Then, she shared a story of someone having called a doctor hon and how the doctor went on a rant because she believed she was being disrespected. Initially, I thought to myself, “This is ridiculous,” especially after I learned that it was a female doctor who said it to another female doctor.” Then over time, as I tried to limit my usage of the word and thought about its use in different contexts, I came to the conclusion that it was okay to call someone hon but that I should be sensitive to the context. Is this someone who I know well or someone who also uses the word? If not, how did they react when I used the word. Body language says a great deal. If the word slips out and I’m not sure of the reaction, I will let the person know I meant no harm or that I use the word indiscriminately, and I will apologize if it was offensive to the person.
If you’re saying right now, “Well, that’s too burdensome. People are too sensitive these days. You can’t say anything without someone getting offended and overreacting. It has gotten to the place where I can’t even tell a joke or sing a song with certain words without someone having a problem with it. Just f it, I’ll say what I want!” And hear me say, that is certainly your right. Hear me also say that until we all are willing to take the time and make the effort to monitor our own language at the same level or greater than we monitor our actions, we will never be the free, uplifting, and harmonious nation we say we want to be and that we can be. This also requires taking the time to listen to other people’s concerns and reasons for reacting the way they do. If we are being asked why the words are offensive or why they’re offensive if person x says them but not if person y does, it means erring on the side of believing that the other party is sincere and wants to learn or engage in a constructive manner, not that they are being sarcastic or mean-spirited or that they are intentionally uninformed.
All that said, I put forth our recent debate over Roseanne’s tweet and the cancellation of her show. My initial reaction was to approve of the show’s cancellation and the more I learned of other comments Roseanne has made, the more I applauded the network’s decision. Then I started reading statements from people who questioned why Roseanne’s show was cancelled when the shows of certain talk show hosts and other comedians was not. “That’s different,” I said to each example given. Then God poked me and asked, “How is it different? Are you just having a knee-jerk reaction or have you actually thought about the examples being given?” So I began to think about it and I continue to do so, not just about Roseanne, but about our use of language on a daily basis.
First, I think about context. Life does not provide clear answers of right and wrong. Maybe that would make life easier but it’s a moot point. Context matters. For example, the comedian Dave Chappelle did a skit years ago in which he brought forth the lunacy of Jim Crow laws. I believe he called it a shit-in instead of a sit-in. He filmed the skit like a documentary with himself as an elderly factory worker recalling a day in the Jim Crow south when he desperately needed to use the bathroom and the “colored” bathroom was on the other end of the factory. He took a chance on using the whites only bathroom only to find himself sitting on the toilet with a shouting police officer and an attacking German shepherd at the bathroom stall door. There were many people who found the skit offensive and chastised Chappelle for what they viewed as making fun of the Civil Rights movement. I believe he said the intensity of hostile feedback was one of the reasons he took a long break from public life. I, however, thought the skit was hysterical as it did point out how ludicrous those laws were. It also could pique the interest of people who were not familiar with that period of our history or of its effects on the daily lives of African-Americans. In my opinion and in this context, the skit was not one that would require chastising Chappelle or taking his show off the air. Even if we personally did not agree with how the skit was presented, this was a comedian and an African-American addressing a political, racial, and moral issue that still effects us as a nation.
Second, there is history, the person’s history, the history of television, and our nation’s history. Unlike Dave Chappelle, Roseanne was not commenting on her ethnic group and she has a history of making racist and otherwise offensive comments against African-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Muslim-Americans, and others. She has done so as Roseanne the celebrity, as Roseanne a human being. Unlike Carroll O’Connor, for example, who played the racist and sexist Archie Bunker and used his celebrity to speak out against such behavior, Roseanne has used her popularity to give racist words a larger platform. We could add to her history the extremist political and social statements she has made on both the extreme right and the extreme left.
Television for decades has joined in affirming sexism, ageism, religious discrimination, homophobia, and racism. People of color were rarely seen and when portrayed were portrayed in demeaning ways. Even as I watch documentaries today on World War II, I am reminded of how people of color have been discounted. As I watch the footage of soldiers in the field, being transported in ships across the Atlantic, or celebrating at the end of the war, I think of my own father and three uncles who served on foreign soil during World War II, who served honorably, and who served in a segregated military. Where is the footage of the soldiers who looked like them? There is some, but it is rare. The small and the large screens that depict our lives and provide our entertainment have a lot of making up to do. So should ABC and other entertainment entities watch Roseanne’s behavior more closely than that of many other entertainers? Yes. Both her history and the history of the entertainment industry warrant it. Should the show have been cancelled? In my opinion, no, even if it continued for a certain time period or indefinitely without Roseanne. Possibly the incident could have been used within the show as a way to educate and to prompt fruitful discussions.
Lastly, the role of our nation’s history. If we live in the United States, we live in a nation infected with racism. Unlike many of my family members and other African-American friends, it has taken me decades to be able to own that fact. I have never wanted to own it because it hurts. It wounds and it wounds in ways that can never be healed. Even with all of my education and all the advantages my family has given me, even though this is the country of my birth, and even though this is a country for which generations of my family have worked, fought, and died, I will never be treated equally, not as an equal to a white female and certainly not to a white male. I am reminded of that fact every time I look for a house or an apartment, every time I apply for a job, and even every time I think of going to a new doctor or a new church. My parents’ generation risked physical, financial, and emotional injury by doing any of those things. My generation has faced less of the physical risk, but the wounding attitudes and words still abound. At times, they have caused me to discount my own worth as a human being, to dislike the physical characteristics that God graciously gave me, and to discount and disparage people of my own race.
Roseanne’s comparison of an African-American female to an ape was more than a political commentary or an inappropriate joke about appearance or a protest against political correctness. For better or worse, her comment came with her history, the entertainment industry’s history, and our nation’s history. For African-Americans, it came with a history of being compared to apes as an insult to our intelligence and our humanity, not only by the entertainment industry but by the so-called science of the day, science that found it perfectly acceptable to experiment on African-Americans without concern and without consent. If as Americans, we are to be one nation under God, each of us must take the time to learn about our history, the good, the bad, and the ugly. We must own that history and deal with it, not once but continuously. For racism is like a cancer. It can be hard to detect. It can be mistaken for other diseases. If we have symptoms of it, we may try to ignore them for we know that treating the disease may drain our bodies, our minds, and our finances. Once cancer is detected and even after it is in remission, it must be monitored for the rest of a person’s earthly life. If it is not, it can return and spread throughout a person’s body before showing any obvious signs. And yes, it can be lethal. The same is true of racism and racist words affirm racist beliefs and behavior.
Each of us, regardless of ethnicity or social prominence, must expend the energy to think before we speak, to listen and seek to understand when another person takes offense at what we say, and to communicate in constructive, not destructive, ways. As Christians, we have committed to viewing every person as a child of God and to loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. When we are tempted to believe that other people are being too sensitive or that words don’t matter, we need to recall a time when someone said something that was hurtful to us. Regardless of whether we called their attention to it, whether they intended to hurt us or not, or whether others would or would not have taken offense, the hurt was real. The wounds are real. May we learn from that hurt and remember the effect words can have. As we hear and read the words of people who have chosen to be in public forums, may we be mindful of context and history and hold them accountable. May each of us seek to fill our daily discourse with words that heal, inspire, educate, and transform for the better. May we do so not because it is politically correct and not because any person or any social standard requires us to do so, but because as human beings traveling on this journey together, we desire to do so.