I heard about David Henson through Mark Sandlin’s The God Article and have found him to be a thoughtful fellow. Today, on his Edges of Faith blog, he says “Whenever I’m angry or frustrated, I tend to say a very nasty, very ugly word. Naturally, I say it often. It starts with an ‘s’ and ends in a ‘t.” It’s not what you think, so get your mind out of the gutter; the word David is referring to is shoot. In addition to being thoughtful, Henson is also thought-provoking. While I don’t share his aversion to guns or waste my time with a lot of euphemisms, his piece does address an important point: just because it isn’t curse word doesn’t mean it’s okay to say it.
There are plenty of words in everyday use that sound acceptable, even nice, but are loaded with scorn, vitriol, privilege, etc. They are words that fall from our lips with an ease that is scary. We have used them so long and so often that we don’t even realize what we’re saying. And, they are much worse than anything in the seven dirty words George Carlin talked about.
We all know words like nigger, spic, kike and cracker are ugly and should never be used, but what about illegal, the homosexuals (along with the gays), redneck, hillbilly and other equally dehumanizing words and phrases? And, it goes beyond specific names; any phrase that casts a shadow someone’s personhood is one you really shouldn’t use.
What do I mean by that? Terms such as homeless people, poor people, black people (or white or brown people for that matter). Not long ago, I was struggling with this kind of language, mostly feeling uncomfortable with the phrase poor people. Every time I used it, it felt like I was serving up a heaping helping of condescension with a dollop of white savior on the side. So, I did what I usually do in situations like this: had coffee with Hugh Hollowell. When I brought this up, he told me “You can’t go wrong leading with people.” As in “people who are economically challenged” or “people who are homeless”. Placing the word people first made their humanity the defining characteristic, not the situation they found themselves in at that particular time.
I know it’s hard. Things like illegal alien or the gays roll off your tongue a whole lot easier than people who are undocumented or LGBT. And, it’s hard to keep up with what’s acceptable these days; it seems like every time I turn around they’ve added another letter to the alphabet soup making up the above-mentioned acronym. I would say it’s what Jesus meant when he talked about taking up your cross and following him, but I know everyone who reads this blog isn’t necessarily a Christian. So, instead, let’s go with the Golden Rule: treat others as you wish to be treated. Or, in southern parlance, if it’s something you wouldn’t want your mother to find out about, you probably shouldn’t do it. Or, in this case, say it.