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David Bly: Our words have the power to harm or heal

The fact that students celebrating Frosh Week participated in similar rape chants at universities on both coasts suggests the phenomenon is not uncommon.

The fact that students celebrating Frosh Week participated in similar rape chants at universities on both coasts suggests the phenomenon is not uncommon. If students chant words that advocate non-consensual and underage sex, does that mean they favour such practices?

Perhaps not, but words have a subtle but powerful effect on attitudes and actions. They can do harm, but they can also do good.

Merely changing the words we use might sound like paying lip service to a principle, but when we stop to think about what we say, at least we stop to think.

In talking about certain ethnic groups, my grandfather used words that today would be objectionable. He was a kindly person who liked everyone he met, and was liked by all who knew him. He used terms used by most people of his era. He meant no harm.

But those words were not harmless. They reflected a prevalent patronizing, ethnocentric attitude toward immigrants and people of colour. By being more careful with our words, we think more deeply. We change our attitudes and our behaviour.

In a conversation in my much younger days, I said someone had “jewed” another person in driving a hard bargain. My Jewish friend, who was part of the conversation, asked: “Do you know what you just said?” That hit me hard. To that point, I had never consciously connected the term, which was commonly used in those times and those parts, with anyone’s race or religion, but that doesn’t mean the connection didn’t exist.

I have not used the term since.

At another time, in another place, a reader disputed the way something was handled in the newspaper.

“Why don’t I meet with you and your boss and we can sit down and talk about it like white men?” he asked.

“Easy for you to say,” I said. “My boss is Japanese and I’m part Indian.”

“That’s funny,” he said.

“No it’s not,” I said.

An awkward pause followed, then the conversation took on a little more respectful tone.

Granted, my aboriginal part is so small as to be microscopic, but the expression still annoyed. And I knew my aboriginal cousins and in-laws would have been hurt to hear something like that.

Among the games we played as kids was cowboys and Indians. When an aboriginal boy moved into the neighbourhood, we invited him to take part, and were mighty annoyed when he wanted to be one of the cowboys.

And why not? The cowboys were the good guys, had guns and always won. The Indians were the villains, were armed only with bows and arrows and invariably lost.

There was a lesson to be learned then, but it took a few years to sink in. Our games and our words, inspired by movies and the dominant culture, had shaped our attitudes, had given us a one-dimensional, inaccurate view of some of those who were our neighbours and classmates. I don’t remember any incidents of overt racism, but there seemed to be a “them and us” gap that was never quite bridged.

As an adult, I had the opportunity to study the predominant aboriginal language of our region. I never came close to mastering the language, learning only a few greetings and phrases.

But in understanding a little of how the language worked, I understood more of the culture that was intertwined with the language. I realized how much we had missed in not sharing the traditions of that culture.

Later, those few greetings I learned opened doors, initiated conversations and fostered friendships.

Sometimes, adherence to certain terms and language goes overboard, but more often, someone whining about “political correctness” is attempting to excuse something that is decidedly incorrect, all politics aside.

When derogatory terms are used to describe someone of a different race, ethnicity or religion, those words cause harm, not just because they insult, but because words reveal attitudes, and attitudes motivate action.

On the other hand, when we choose to use more respectful terms, it’s a conscious act that can change attitudes and the way we treat each other.