Bumper stickers grab your attention. With a picture or a pithy phrase they communicate instantly. YOU ARE YOUR WORDS says it all. This car decal by American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language was in the rear view of my car for awhile. It has bubbled and peeled, beginning to pull apart its simple message. No doubt the heat of the Alabama summer followed by the drought of the fall season did its damage. This car magnet’s deterioration mirrored the worsening of civil discourse in our nation.
I have always lived with a deep respect for words. I was fortunate to grow up in a family who used words with care never disparaging others based on race, religion or culture. I did not realize how precious this was until I left home in 1975. My first jarring experience was hearing an anti-Semitic joke in college. Another memorable moment was in my first job on Capitol Hill reading a constituent’s angry letter about refugees. In 1979 Cambodian boat people were the target. And the power of words has never felt stronger or more deadly than hearing our President-elect talk this fall.
Words communicate how you see others. Language shapes how we think. The words we choose influence both ourselves and those who hear them. Never was that made more clear to me than when I studied at Vanderbilt Divinity School in the early 1980s. The school had an inclusive language policy and the way we spoke about God and each other reflected this. It was awkward at first choosing to say, for example, Creator instead of King, humanity instead of mankind, person instead of man but with the effort came an expanded awareness of the divine and our shared humanity. And it wasn’t a head thing as much as a heart thing. It transformed me.
I began to notice that when men called adult females girls there was a patronizing air whether intended or not. I’m from Chattanooga and my mother was a beloved community leader whose good will I continue to feel and cherish. She died over a year ago at the age of 87. I recently met a Chattanoogan – a physically imposing, boisterous man about my age I guess. Upon being introduced to me as Mai Bell’s daughter, he said with great enthusiasm, “She was a good girl!” I was flabbergasted. Really? In my gut I felt the punch of his careless words diminishing her memory in so many ways.