Word choice colors how we see one another: as having attributes, or embodying them.
Read the following two sentences:
He is black.
He is a black.
Hmm. We don’t hear the latter much these days. It’s old-fashioned if not out-dated if not off-putting. But deeper than the emotional reaction that differs in these two statements, is the implication of that simple, one-letter word.
Grammatically, “a” (or “an”) is an indefinite article. (“The ” is a definite article.) But this article about articles isn’t a lesson in grammar; it’s a call to watch your words because we use them to shape the image of others as well as the feelings that come from within ourselves.
Articles are powerful. As exemplified above, we sometimes use articles to define our subject as the label we’re attributing to them. And more than that is the implication they are that—and nothing else. For that reason, we may tell our kids that instead of saying “My teacher is a crab” it’s better to say “My teacher is crabby.” And as adults, we’ve learned not to use articles in the way described above.
Yet it’s commonplace—and completely acceptable—to use an indefinite article in other derogatory ways. If someone breaks the law he’s a criminal; if someone’s high, they’re a drug addict. I know a writer who, upon overhearing a person at a party say something prejudiced, referred to that person in their article as “a bigot.” I wondered why this person couldn’t just have “said something bigoted.” Did they have to be “a bigot”? That’s all this person was to the author.
Even those who do nothing wrong but happen to belong to a label which we attribute to enemies of our ideology are now a liberal, a conservative, a Democrat, a Republican, a Jew, a Muslim, a Christian, etc. etc. If you are conservative you might say flippantly that “Obama’s a liberal”. But what if instead you said “Obama is liberal”? Or if you lean left, what if instead of saying, “Michelle Bachmann is a Republican”, you said “Michelle Bachmann is Republican”?
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with using an article when talking about someone or yourself. I’m an accountant. He’s a hero. It’s simply a grammatical option that adds color to our language. (Not all languages use articles, actually—Mandarin Chinese for starters.) Sometimes it’s not an option. We would never say “He is accountant.” But in the above examples, an article is also revealed as an option that encapsulates our negativity. And not just with articles, this same lesson is taught when adjusting our speech from, say, “You are a jerk,” to “You are acting like a jerk.”
When you break it down, it’s all about separation. We define that person or that group; we isolate them and separate ourselves from their label. We compartmentalize others to the point where they’re not just individual, but also mono-characteristic.
Today, our acceptance of homosexuals as more than just their sexual preference has allowed us to evolve our rhetoric from “He’s a gay” to “He’s gay.” (It’s why I like to say “She’s lesbian.”) So why don’t we evolve some more? Rather than kicking the can down the sidewalk and finding new outlets to steer our anger and fear—liberals, Republicans, etc. —let’s pick it up and throw it in the garbage.
We use these little words to jab our dagger into our opponent’s character. Character assassination and misrepresentation of others as a single label are bad enough, but we should change our language for another reason: it’s beneficial to ourselves. Because when we speak in this manner not only do we communicate this misrepresentation to others, but we do so to ourselves. We exercise and feed our own fear toward others whether they be perceived as a threat for being a greedy rich, a parasitic poor, a nanny state liberal, a heartless conservative, a family-destroying homosexual, a civilian-bombing war hawk, and on and on.
I’ll confess my own distaste for many modern-day Progressive politicians. And I’ll offer my testimony that getting rid of the “a” in “Diane Feinstein is a liberal” takes the edge off any ire, softens my soul, and allows me to lighten up and see the individual in a more complete, accurate, and less fear-based way.
In short, it helps me love and reduce the hate.
Sounds like a heck of a resolution to make this new year.
This was previously published on New Plateaus.
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Image credit: kvanhorn/Flickr