Systemic Racism Protest

A protester holds a sign asking, “Why is racism a debate?” outside the Umatilla County Courthouse in Pendleton on July 15, 2020, as systemic racism became a topic of debate in the county.

In America’s culture wars, words are the weapons of choice.

The problem with this, I have increasingly noticed, is that the words used often mean completely different things to the two sides.

Take racism. In my experience, the word carries a spectrum of meanings. On one end, you have people who think of racism only as a hatred of all people with a different color of skin, possibly to the point of wanting them dead. On the other end, you have people whose much broader definition of racism includes unjust institutional structures, microaggressions, cultural appropriation and even the unconscious biases of well-meaning people.

I watched last summer as those differing definitions caused complete meltdowns in communication. If someone used the word racist, what one person heard as “We can all do better at combating our own prejudices, so that’s why I’m explaining to you why what you said is harmful,” another person would hear as an accusation that they love Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan. Things would go downhill from there.

You can see the same problem repeat itself over and over again as liberals and conservatives have absurd arguments based on the fact they both have very different definitions of words like “gender” or “rights”. Half our political discourse these days is like going into a classroom of kindergarteners and telling half of them that “blurble” is the number of fingers they have on one hand and telling the other half that it’s the number of feet they have, and then asking the class what blurble plus blurble is.

I’m sure everyone reading this right now is absolutely convinced that their own definition is the correct one in every case, and everyone who doesn’t agree with them is a dummy.

Perhaps you are right. But even if that were the case, we’re not going to accomplish anything worthwhile in this country if we can’t have even a basic dialog.

As you talk about controversial issues, discuss what both of you mean. If you say “Congress should pass gun control,” you might mean universal background checks and the person you’re talking to might think you mean banning all private ownership of guns. Meanwhile, “I’m against gun control” to them might mean “I think there should be few restrictions on gun ownership,” while you might be assuming they mean convicted felons should be able to walk the streets with machine guns. Establishing in good faith what you both mean when you use the phrase “gun control” will lead to a far more productive discussion.

Conversations also work better when we ask the right questions. Instead of having an intense, days-long, national debates on the question “Is this specific person/incident/book/tweet racist?” we would be better off spending our energy discussing questions like “How can we make sure all Americans have an equal shot at this opportunity?” or “Is this system working equally well for everyone, and if not, what can we do to change that?”

We can also be thoughtful in using words as they were intended, to preserve their meaning. Too many phrases, from “cancel culture” to “fake news” to “virtue signaling,” started out with specific, useful definitions and have now devolved into nothing more than a blanket term for “something I don’t like.”

Other words, it’s time to purge from our societal vocabulary. There are words that I’m ashamed I used as growing up that seemed harmless at the time that I stopped using when I got older and understood how hurtful they could be. Many years ago, I quit using a certain “R word” I used to hear on the playground a lot, for example, after a conversation about it with a friend in high school with a brother with intellectual disabilities. As our society has become more aware of how harmful some language can be, habit is no excuse for continuing to use it.

Language is a constantly growing, ever-changing thing. If we don’t adapt with it, we won’t get anywhere.

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