In The Beginning was The Word?

Some argue that humans are no better than all other species, as evidenced by our murderous behavior. Nevertheless, language especially separates us from the assortment of grunting, singing and yelping animal life which we domesticate, eat, worship or cage. It has evolved over eons and assumes a top position in the hierarchy of human achievements. But when we attach more significance to words and pay less attention to the actions they represent, we abuse the notion of humanity as a higher form of animal life.

True to our western dualism, we use ancient written scriptures as guides to preaching morality, or as rationalizations for practicing immorality. We do the same with constitutions, which establish the legality of our state structures. Too often we honor words to interpret what we do as being godly and lawful, while practicing deeds which are in total contradiction to the legal systems and moral codes they symbolize. The examples are too numerous for a short essay, but this concerns our language of bigotry, or what has become labeled as hate speech.

Racial slurs made by a media personality recently opened the floodgates of criticism, as well as arguments in defense of such talk as free speech. While many justifiably challenged any supposed right to slur human beings with such gross disrespect, they often missed the fact that it goes on all the time and is a moneymaker in the radio universe. Much of the tasteless and irreverent shock jock talk is heard by listeners as honest response to a kind of speech regulation, which is often hypocritical. Rather than changing hateful realities at the core of our culture, it simply makes them less overt in speech, while convincing regulators of their own moral righteousness. This is progress in the way that addressing someone by a publicly accepted title can somehow blur the fact that he is in prison, or living in poverty, or otherwise being treated as a second class citizen.

One of the forward steps taken as a result of the civil rights movement of the sixties was when whites stopped addressing grown black men as boy. This disrespectful conduct was finally changed, but while this was a big move in personal healing, it didn’t change much of what actually went on in the material world. No longer addressing a man as though he were a boy did not mean that his status, in theory, made him an equal to all other men, in practice.

Using politically correct verbal forms to address people, while practicing socially incorrect behavior in the treatment of those same people, exemplifies what a holy book or constitution is often used for: the justification or rationalization of human indignity, with a legalistic or holy veneer that does nothing to stop physical inhumanity, but only uses words to make it sound less inhumane.

People who would never say the ‘n’ word or the ‘f’ word in public but call people niggers or faggots in private, are part of the problem. But those who would never use such language at any time are not part of the solution, as long as their language sensitivity does little or nothing to change the social realities, which treat so many people as less than human. Support for correct social speech, joined with maintenance of incorrect social practice, equals hypocrisy, not democracy.

We should never use language that is insulting or disrespectful to any people, but polite habits of speech mean very little when society treats so many with a disrespect that amounts to murderous disregard. When we consign children to under-funded, physically run down schools that can’t possibly provide the education supposedly guaranteed them by our written laws, addressing them with verbal respectability masks a cruel and material disrespect. Using nasty terms like ho or bitch when addressing women is degrading, but calling someone Miss or Mrs. while forcing her to work at below minimum wages and raise children in a home with broken windows and no heat, is hardly a sign of a healthy respect for women.

While our consciousness of how hurtful talk can be has led to some progress, it has also helped create a kind of language police force armed with hate laws and moral righteousness. At the same time we have a material police force armed with the older laws and weapons which are too often used to pump bullets into an unarmed and innocent man because he looked suspiciously, criminally black. Neither such a man, nor his family or his community, are protected from ignorant bigotry by respectfully referring to him, with politically correct language, as a dead African American.

An old childhood adage retaliated to name calling by chanting; sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never harm me. Of course derogatory names can cause deep personal pain, as can heartbreaking relationships, loneliness and depression. But physical pain hurts far more, and when we over stress the correction of language to free it of derogatory words, we sometimes forget the social pain we allow in everyday performance of even more derogatory deeds.

We don’t need politically correct speech as much as we need a political actuality that fits the words we use to profess it. Our credit culture ultimately demands material actions to back up any immaterial credit language; landlords and banks will not accept endless promises to pay the rent or mortgage. Social relations amount to a verbal bill that needs to be paid in something more than additional promissory verbiage. While we act to enforce rules of decent speech, we would do well to remember another old adage; actions speak louder than words. It’s time to put those words into action.