Guest Commentary: The right language can change the future


Dr. Tom H. Hastings is coordinator of the Conflict Resolution Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Science programs and certificates at Portland State University, a PeaceVoice senior editor and, on occasion, an expert witness for the defense of civil resisters in court.

The 14-year-old girl fumes at the dinner table. She got a D in math on her report card and notice of that was sent directly to her mother’s phone.

The mother naturally shared that with her partner, and he laid down new rules restricting the girl’s use of her phone until her grades improved.

“This sucks!” exclaims the girl.

“Language!” said the mother, her hand raised palm out, like a stop sign.

Indeed, perception is reality and language is a weapon, used for the good or for ill. Did the girl deserve such censorship? Hard to say with such a minor infraction.

But at the very least, can we agree that words matter?

I am old. I make my living with words, with teaching them, writing them, editing them when written by others and in trying to transform the most harmful of them into a better process between people. I have seen a great deal of linguistic evolution, and there are days when I confess I just have to laugh. We humans are simply excellent at redirecting our worst impulses into a new light of approbation via language manipulation.

Notice on a local social media notice board: “I need to rehome a German Shepherd.”

Hahaha. Rehome.

Translation: I have a dog that is a disaster. Want him?

I hosted an evening with an upcoming author and researcher a few years ago. I fit 18 people into my living room to hear her present her research and the findings that were the heart of her brilliant new scholarly book.

A friend I invited took it upon himself to bring along someone I had not invited. I kind of knocked myself out preparing fancy appetizers, including some very pricey Washington organic cherries, select Irish and Swiss cheeses, etc. The guest I didn’t invite lingered and eventually said to me, “I’d be happy to offer to take the remaining items as rescue food.”

Rescue food. Seriously.

“Um, no, thanks,” I replied. “I’ll manage.” It wasn’t as if I had steam table pans full of untouched food that should really go to feed homeless people (I’ve actually done this when organizing larger conferences, and it’s a sensible practice). In this case, it was as if I should give my food to someone who came uninvited into my home.

Yeah, no.

Let us beware of language evolving in ways that permit distortion and manipulation. Let us watch ourselves, so we don’t cloak hurtful and humiliating statements in the garb of being woke. Let us please focus on calling in others, instead of calling them out.

If we get really good at a calling-in culture, you just watch. We can make America great again. But this time, great as in inclusive. Great as in compassionate. Great as in healing the traumas of the past. Great as in helping us engage in civil discourse at every level.

In this era of climate chaos overlain with great communication challenges, I’d propose that “it’s not the heat; it’s the humility.”

Please let us use our speech well and our listening even better. Our future, the future of our young ones, especially as many are now predicting a second U.S. civil war, literally depends on this.

Members and subscribers make this story possible.
You can help support non-partisan, community journalism.