Sitting on my zero-turn lawnmower is where I do my best thinking.
What was on my mind after finishing my latest grass cutting were several comments that I’ve left publicly over the past few years that, in retrospect, would have been better left unsaid.
Assessing my language in certain circumstances revealed it to be unprincipled, poorly considered, flippantly employed and offensive to others. Several examples come to mind.
First is the term “schmuck,” which I heard used for years. I intended it to convey foolishness to those in my networks, but later learned it can be a pejorative and offensive term in another culture.
A second example is when I made a crass remark in an attempt to be clever and used the term “chattel slavery” without consideration of the emotional and historical realities this phrase conveys. As is often the case with words I wish I had swallowed rather than spoken, it was done “off the cuff.” Note to self.
Most recently, I’ve been guilty of significant insensitivity to the phrase “on the spectrum” that was used by someone in an attempt to be humorous. I responded rapidly, without thought, in an attempt to match their humor rather than taking a few moments to realize how inappropriate my words were before speaking. I appreciated being reminded of this by a friend who has a child with autism.
Considering these and other instances while sitting in the shade on my mower brought to mind several lessons I’ve learned regarding language and the need to carefully examine words written and spoken.
- The offender does not get to determine the degree of offensiveness of their words.
This is the exclusive purview of the offended. Cover-up phrases such as “I didn’t mean anything by it,” or dismissive statements like, “It was just a joke; lighten up!” miss the point.
- Context is not everything. In fact, it is usually nothing.
I have learned if a statement is borderline offensive to anyone or in any setting, I would be better off never using it in any context.
There is a bleed-over effect of offensive, misogynistic, racist language serpentinely working its way into personal lexicons unconsciously. This is something we need to guard against, even in situations where no one would recognize the statement as offensive or problematic.
- Degree is a deflector.
As someone who has said or written something potentially hurtful to another, I do not have the right, permission or moral authority to tell that person to what degree they should feel offended. Privilege or insensitivity may suggest that I do, but just because that is how privilege and insensitivity work doesn’t make it right.
- We all have blind spots.
Ignorance of cultural context and insensitivity to issues of race, gender identity or religious discrimination is typically individual specific. We should strive to be particularly attentive when communicating about topics we do not understand well.
Old adages become old for a reason. “Tread lightly” springs to mind. “Speak thoughtfully” should as well.
The onus of appropriate communication is with the originator of the thought. If unsure, become better informed before uttering the statement in either print or speech.
Blind spots are, by definition, unrecognized and often subconscious. So, when we learn that comments voiced spontaneously and with little thought are harmful to another, this should be a signal that we must spend time in personal reflection on our words – and even possibly in conversation with people who could be offended by them.
- Times change and so should our awareness of certain words and phrases.
Thinking back to some of the things I said growing up, those same sentiments would likely get me terminated from my job today.
This isn’t to say that the words were appropriate in the past. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that we should, individually and collectively, always be working to refine our words and actions so they promote the well-being and flourishing of all people.
It is irrelevant whether someone fully understands or agrees with the changes. The world moves forward quickly and, again, the onus is on the communicator to change their rhetoric.
- I must be willing to step up to the plate and accept the consequences.
The proper way to move forward is by acknowledging that all blame lies with me, with zero parsing of any detail. Then, I should express remorse for using those words and ask, face to face when possible, for that person to understand the degree of my desire to do better in the future.
Immediacy and sincerity are essential here. I try to address it directly and as quickly as possible after offensive words have left my tongue, pen or keyboard.
- Offer some sort of restitution.
In a small way, this article is a public form of offering restitution for my poorly considered and projected words.
I read an article recently about how Twitter (which I do not use) has the potential to be a harmful form of communication that does not allow for thoughtful reflection and revision when necessary.
I think this probably holds true across other forms of social media as well, even if it is to a lesser degree. Several of my examples above did occur on another social media platform.
Robert Parham (1953-2017) — the founder of Baptist Center for Ethics / EthicsDaily.com, which joined Baptists Today / Nurturing Faith to form Good Faith Media — became a mentor of sorts and a dear friend.
He had several short phrases that have stuck with me over the decades, and one I keep coming back to is: “Words matter.”
I attempt to use mine civilly, correctly and non-pejoratively. When I fail, I’m disappointed in myself. But then I redouble my efforts to do better moving forward. It’s all I know to do.