It struck me on a number of occasions these past few days regarding how careful we must be in our choice of words. One reason is what we may understand by a word may not be the same as the person we are in conversation with. Words can be used like Newspeak, in 1984, as a means to control thought and subjugate the populace. Another is words can heal and harm, enlighten and create confusion, and we should think through what might happen as a result of our opening our mouth. I am grateful though to my English teacher, in my schoolboy days, who impressed on us the need to carefully choose words to convey the meaning we want. For example a person that doesn’t buy his round of drinks in a pub, depending on one’s point of view, could be described as tight, careful or frugal.
It often strikes me that one reason why a shoot from the hip type like Trump often comes unstuck is because of an imprudent use of words, something that clever lawyer types, like Obama and Hillary, avoid because of their clever word usage, even if ending up saying little that is meaningful. Besides being reminded from holy scripture as to the importance of carefully selecting the words we speak, I was reminded why when it came to two words were that were used (in entirely different contexts) in the course of the past week, that could so easily have, and in other contexts have done so, caused conflict and become a distraction, when this could have been avoided.
The first was with a Christian friend reflecting on Trump’s announcement to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem (biblically synonymous with Zion). In my discussions with my friend I used the word “Zionist”, by which I meant a belief that the Jewish people should be able to return to the land promised to Abraham, with Zion as its capital. I did have caveats though and this formed as part of our discussion. It had to be God’s timing, the concerns of others with a Jerusalem interest needs to be taken into consideration and the Israelis needed to stop oppressing the Palestinians. Yet, according to my definition, I am a Zionist. For my friend, Zionist is seen in purely positive terms, like in the old gospel hymn: “We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion; We’re marching upward to Zion; the beautiful city of God”.
There is a third understanding though and is the one I suspect most who use or come across the term have. Leading figures in the nineteenth century Zionist movement were often not religious but came to advocate for a Jewish homeland with Jerusalem as its capital, and often did so with scant regard to the non-Jews that lived in the region. They came to receive strong support from zealous Christians, often with dispensational, pre-millennial, eschatological beliefs. People that have this understanding often use the term “Zionist” in a pejorative sense. In line with the theme of this article, I am not writing so much to dispute peoples’ understanding nor their opinions, but rather point out that we need to define terms.
My second example, every bit as controversial, is to do with the meme above. Reading my social media feeds I find a number of the folk I interact with, including friends, are concerned (to put it mildly) over a recent announcement that the Trump administration is to ban the America’s health protection agency (CDC) from using the following terms: Evidence-based, Science-based, Fetuses, Transgender, Vulnerable, Entitlement, Diversity and for some this is tantamount to introducing Newspeak. I am not here to support or attack this move, the details including the all important contextual ones I know too little about to comment on. But I have seen a change in the culture in terms of words that have become popularized and those that were once popular falling out of favour. I should say from the outset all these supposed banned words have a place in communication in the right context and I too would be concerned if somehow Trump was becoming like Big Brother in order to kill dissent. But, it seems to me, a word like fetus has become conveniently popular for the pro-choice lobby as it dehumanizes what is living in the mothers womb.
The words used when I was growing up, almost exclusively, were “with child” or “carrying a baby”. I agree with one of my Facebook friends who writes: “Planned Parenthood rips Trump for CDC ban on using the word ‘fetus’. PP uses the term fetus instead of baby because fetus is a way of dehumanizing the baby in the womb. No woman says I’m pregnant with an 8 week fetus! The word used is always baby, but when it comes to killing the baby in the womb, all of a sudden it is called a fetus. I think this is wonderful and makes PP and their ilk use the words that actually state what they are doing: killing a baby in the womb! If it is kept then the word is baby, but if it is aborted, then it is a fetus”.
In conclusion, speaking in purely neutral terms is a difficult and maybe an impossible undertaking. I defy even friends I happen to agree with to say they always do so. The words we use often reflect the axioms we hold. But the wise person will realize this and be careful in his/her use of words so that these convey as precisely as possible what is meant and avoids giving needless offence. I have chose two words that can and does raise emotions, and there are many more. In many ways George Orwell, who wrote 1984 was prophet for our times and we are seeing unfold before our eyes the sinister consequence of the sort of society that he feared would (and was already beginning to) unfold. Whatever our views on the matter, I would like to think that readers on all sides of the arguments will take note and act appropriately. We also need to carefully monitor the attack on free speech such that people cannot say what they think, and shutting it down e.g. via the Internet (subject of a future blog), and this regardless of one’s ideology. Maybe holy scripture should have the last word: “Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few.”