GUEST COLUMN: The words you use do matter

Thea deGroot

In Grade 8 I learned how to write précis, summing up a whole paragraph worth of words into a short, succinct sentence.

In the subsequent years, my world learned to write sound bites, a term first recorded in 1980 and originating in political campaigns.  News clips got shorter; even commercials raced to reduce their message to memorable, quotable jingles.

Social media asks you to click ‘Like’ or use acronyms or emoticons to express your reactions.  Twitter confines us to 140 characters or less.  We’ve become a society of brevity.

Now précis, sound bites, acronyms and emoticons all have their place and can at times be useful.  However, with this habit of summing up complex thought, sincere expressions or unique individuals, we all lose.

Defining a group as ‘the poor’ rather than people who live in poverty, or ‘the disabled’ rather than people who live with a disability, we diminish them as complex individuals who could be described in a myriad of ways.  We do the same when we reduce individuals whose gender or sexual preference may be different than ours, or when we choose to use the colour of someone’s skin to sum them up.

Such word choices actually say more about us than about the person or group we are describing. Easy labels allow us to differentiate ourselves from those who differ from us in one aspect, and thus make all kinds of judgments about them and keep our distance.

Sometimes the terminology we use comes more from our own personal history or that of the culture in which we live. I have often heard people express their support for indigenous rights by speaking of First Nations peoples as ‘our’ First Nations people.  It would be more correct for First Nations peoples to speak of the settler population as ‘our’ settlers or ‘our’ white population since it is they who occupied this land first.  Colonialism has deep roots and shows itself in subtle ways even when we think we’ve left that behind us.

I think of myself as female, an immigrant, Dutch, Canadian, citizen, wife, mother, grandmother, a Christian, a gardener, a cook, a social activist, a senior, a retired teacher, a friend – I could go on, as could you.

I want to live in a society that is vibrant and diverse; a society that opens space for everyone to flourish; one that honours each other as complex and full human beings.

Next time you are tempted to sum up someone’s life by a word or two, give some thought to what that says about yourself.

Thea deGroot is a former Christian school teacher and literacy instructor involved with the Sarnia Justice Film Festival and Citizens for Public Justice